Exit Polls: Latest Conundrum
The Election Commission on Monday asked for a police case to be initiated against the management of Dainik Jagran, a Hindi newspaper, for publishing results of what appeared to be an exit poll conducted after the first phase of Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.
What are exit polls?
- The “exit-poll” means an opinion survey inspecting how electors have voted at an election or inspecting how all the electors have performed with regard to the identification of a political party or candidate in an election.
- Exit polls generally involve asking citizens about their voting preferences on Election Day itself.
- The ‘exit’ refers to polling done on people who have just exited voting booths. They are different from opinion polls, which usually take the form of surveys conducted before elections.
Status of Exit polls in India
In 2008, Parliament amended the Representation of the People Act and inserted Sec 126A and 126B to explicitly ban the conducting and dissemination of exit polls during the period laid out by the EC, usually until the very last day of voting for any elections taking place simultaneously.
Note that opinion polls are not banned.
Status in other countries
- In the US, Australia and South Africa, among other countries, there is no regulation on the conduct and publishing of opinion or exit polls.
- In the UK, while there are no restrictions on publishing the results of opinion polls, results of exit polls cannot be published until voting is finished.
- In Canada, results of opinion polls cannot be published during the last 72 hours before polling. This blackout window lasts 24 hours before polling in France and five days in Russia.
- While the length of this blackout period on opinion polls varies by country, nowhere is there a blanket ban for extended periods of time as has been made in India. A seven-day blackout window imposed by France in 1977 was overturned following a court order that deemed it to be a violation of the freedom of expression.
Why are the exit polls banned?
In India, elections are usually held in multiple phases, the authorities believe the telecast of exit polls after each phase of polling affects the outcome in the subsequent phase of elections.
- It is believed that such telecast of exit polls affect the turnout of voters.
- It is also believed that the result of the one phase may create bandwagon effect forcing people to vote in the same way in the rest of the phases.
- There are allegations that it is used as communication tool for influencing the voters by a conglomerate of political parties, media and business houses with vested interests.
What is special about this case in news?
The media usually forgets that even conducting polling, not just dissemination, is illegal. It is usually seen that the EC turns a blind eye to this violation because the EC order imposing the ban allows dissemination half-an-hour after voting on the last day of polling.
But this time EC has invoked Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code in addition. Its district officials have been asked to file 15 FIRs against a company which conducted an exit poll.
Section 188 of the IPC, on the other hand, criminalises disobedience of the order of public officials and institutions. It deals with a cognisable offence, empowering the police to summarily arrest and investigate without the need for a court directive or warrant.
Counter Arguments to EC’s action
- Loss of liberty at the pleasure of the local police is an excessive state response, especially since what constitutes an exit poll is not unambiguously defined in terms of methodology or sample size.
- The possibility of misuse of the law to curb the freedom to report on elections is real and alarming.
- Besides, the media is capable of regulating its own and is unforgiving of errants in its ranks, since reputation is its stock in trade.
- The reader is nobody’s fool, and the transgressor is automatically perceived to be motivated and loses credibility.
- For the Election Commission to register FIRs is unnecessary, and to go to the extent of finding cognisable offences in exit polls is an enormity.
The EC since the times of T.N Seshan stands tall among other institution for its non-partisanship, but such overzealousness in the name of protecting a level playing field can hurt its hard-won stature and credibility. EC could follow the procedure it does on Model Code of Conduct by reprimanding the transgressor instead of filing FIRs and putting them in jail.