The Need for Independent U.S. Exit Polls
Steven F. Freeman -- University of Pennsylvania
Ken Warren -- St. Louis University
Stephanie Frank Singer -- Campaign Scientific
July 4, 2006
Exit polls are widely acknowledged to be one of the most important elements in helping to ensure an honest election. But this is true only if the poll is conducted with appropriate methodological rigor, if the processes are transparent, and if the data made available. Sadly, this is not the case for the media-sponsored exit polls; and it will be even less so in the future. Hence, the importance of an independent exit poll.
1. About Exit Polls
When properly conducted, exit polls should predict election results with a high degree of reliability. Unlike telephone opinion polls that ask people which candidate they intend to vote for several days before the election, exit polls are surveys of voters conducted after they have cast their votes at their polling places. In other words, rather than a prediction of a hypothetical future action, they constitute a record of an action that was just completed. Around the world, exit polls have been used to verify the integrity of elections. The United States has funded exit polls in Eastern Europe to detect fraud. Discrepancies between exit polls and the official vote count have been used to successfully overturn election results in Ukraine, Serbia, and Georgia.
Exit polls can remove most sources of polling error. Unlike telephone polls, an exit poll will not be skewed by the fact that some groups of people tend not to be home in the evening or don’t own a landline telephone. Exit polls are not confounded by speculation about who will actually show up to vote, or by voters who decide to change their mind in the final moments. Rather, they identify the entire voting population in representative precincts and survey respondents immediately upon leaving the polling place about their votes. Moreover, exit polls can obtain very large samples in a cost-effective manner, thus providing even greater degrees of reliability.
The difference between conducting a pre-election telephone poll and conducting an Election Day exit poll is like the difference between predicting snowfall in a region several days in advance of a snowstorm and estimating the region’s overall snowfall based on observed measures taken at representative sites. In the first case, you’re forced to predict future performance on present indicators, to rely on ambiguous historical data, and to make many assumptions about what may happen. In the latter, you simply need to choose your representative sites well. So long as your methodology is good and you read your measures correctly, your results will be highly accurate.
1.1 How Exit Polls Work
There are two basic stages of an exit poll. The exit pollster begins by choosing precincts that serve the purpose of the poll. For example, if a pollster wants to cost-effectively project a winner, he or she may select “barometer” precincts which have effectively predicted past election winners. If a pollster wants to understand demographic variation in the vote, precincts can be chosen to collectively mirror the ethnic and political diversity of the entire state. Verification of election integrity entails a different precinct sampling procedure depending on the system’s vulnerabilities.
The second stage involves the surveys within precincts. On Election Day, one or two interviewers report to each sampled precinct. From the time the polls open in the morning until shortly before the polls close at night, the interviewers select exiting voters at spaced intervals (for example, every third or fifth voter). Voters are either asked a series of questions in face-to-face interviews, or, more commonly, given a confidential written questionnaire to complete. When a voter refuses to participate, the interviewer records the voter’s gender, race, and approximate age. These data allow the exit pollsters to do statistical corrections for any bias in gender, race, and age that might result from refusals to participate. For example, if more men refuse to participate than women, each man’s response will be given proportionally more weight.
Voting preferences of absentee and early voters can be accounted for with telephone polls.
1.2. A Brief History of Exit Polling in US Elections
Exit polls were first developed in the 1960s, born of a competition among the networks to rapidly project election results and advances in computer technology that enabled the analysis of large amounts of data. The first exit polls were conducted independently by NBC and CBS in the June 1964 California Republican primary.
From the outset, the polls performed well. Until the 2000 election, the only significant controversy about exit polls occurred in 1980, when exit polls allowed NBC to project a victory for Ronald Reagan three hours before the close of voting on the West Coast. Critics blasted the polls and NBC for calling the election before everyone had voted. In 1984 this was repeated with all three networks declaring victory for Reagan over Walter Mondale hours before the polls closed in the West. During a subsequent House Subcommittee hearing, executives from the three networks agreed not to project races until everyone had voted.
No one, however, debated the accuracy of exit polls. Scholars and practitioners, supporters and critics all agreed. In 1987, Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote that exit polls “are the most useful analytic tool developed in my working life.” And according to Albert H. Cantril, a leading authority on public opinion research, “As useful as pre-election polls may be for measuring the evolving disposition of the electorate, they are not nearly as powerful as exit polls in analyzing the message voters have sent by the ballots they cast.” While political scientists George Edwards and Stephen Wayne put it this way: “The problems with exit polls lie in their accuracy (rather than [in their] inaccuracy). They give the press access to predict the outcome before the elections have been concluded.”
That assessment was revised following the 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections. Since 1992, the media have joined forces to conduct a single exit poll, reportedly for economic reasons, and a single poll has been held since. The polls were conducted under the auspices of Voter News Service (VNS). In the 2000 Presidential election, VNS and exit polls in general were tainted by two highly consequential failed calls in the state of Florida. The first call was for Gore, after VNS projected a victory, based on exit polls suggesting 7.3 percent Gore victory (an exit poll discrepancy in Florida that has never been investigated); the second proclaimed a Bush victory based on a computer error. In the 2002 elections, VNS suffered a computer meltdown. (These data have never been made available).
That led to the demise of VNS. The exit poll for the 2004 federal elections was conducted by a new creation, the National Election Pool (NEP), likewise a consortium of six news organizations (ABC, AP, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC) that pooled resources to conduct a thorough survey of each state and the nation. NEP, in turn, contracted two respected firms, Joe Lenski’s Edison Media Research and Warren Mitofsky’s Mitofsky International, to conduct the polls.
1.3. Using Exit Polls to Ensure Election Integrity
Despite the 2002 meltdown and attribution of error in the 2000 and 2004 U.S. exit polls, there is a worldwide consensus that a highly transparent exit poll is one of the best means available to ensure an honest election.
When Mexico sought legitimacy as a modernizing democracy in 1994, Carlos Salinas instituted reforms designed to ensure fair elections. A central feature of those reforms was exit polls. In the 2000 election, the Televisa television network, partly in an attempt to ensure against vote fraud, hired Mitofsky to conduct Mexico’s exit polls. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the first time in the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) seventy-two-year history that it lost an election.
In established democracies, exit polls play a central role both in ensuring election integrity and in quickly projecting results. In Germany, the entire process is totally transparent. The minute the polls close, television stations publish exit-poll projections conducted by independent firms. The exit-poll results provide independent data that can be compared to the official tallies. They also provide the nation with an immediate projection of the winner and mitigate the need for a rapid count. (Like most democracies, Germany, despite its technological prowess, votes by hand-marked ballots, counted in full public view by volunteer representatives of the political parties.) This highly transparent system provides good evidence of just how reliable exit polls are. In three recent years for which data are available, exit polls for both the German national elections and the German elections for the European Parliament have averaged results within 0.44 percentage points of the official results. (Freeman & Bleifuss 2006: Appendix A.)
Such accuracy is not unique to Germany. In the May 2005 British national election, a first-time exit-poll initiative was right on the mark. The poll predicted Labour would have a 37 percent share of the vote, against the Tories with 33 percent and Liberal Democrats with 22 percent. The official count was Labour 35.3 percent, Tories 32.4 percent, and Liberal Democrats 22 percent.
The United States and international agencies have funded exit polls throughout the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe as a way to ensure clean elections. When exit polls in March 2000 and again in March 2004 closely matched the official count in Russia, the international community and Russians themselves were reassured that, whatever their feelings for Putin, the electoral system worked; he had gone before the people to approve of his presidency, and they had ratified it.
Discrepancies between exit polls and the official vote count have been used to successfully overturn election results in Serbia, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, and most recently in Ukraine. In 2003, George Soros’s Open Society Georgia Foundation hired Global Strategy Group to conduct an exit poll for Georgia’s parliamentary election. The exit poll projected a victory for the main opposition party. When the sitting government announced that its own slate of candidates had won, supporters of the opposition stormed the parliament. With support from both the United States and Russia, they forced President Eduard A. Shevardnadze to resign.
Using exit polls to help expose fraud is so generally accepted that the Bush administration helped pay for them during the 2004 elections in Ukraine. In Ukraine, exit polls in the Nov. 22, 2004, runoff election indicated that Viktor Yushchenko would defeat the incumbent Viktor Yanukovych. Yet in the official count Yanukovych prevailed with a narrow victory. Following international protests and a national uprising, a new election was called. In testimony before the House International Relations Committee, Senator Dick Lugar (R.-Ind.) called on the State Department to help ensure that the new election would be fair. “I urge the Department to provide the funds necessary, as quickly as possible, to assist the Ukrainian people in their goal of free and fair elections. Specifically, funds will be used to support election observers, exit polling, parallel vote tabulations, training of election commissioners, and voter education programs.”
In testimony before the same committee, Ambassador John Tefft, deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, said the Bush administration helped fund exit polls because they could be used to expose fraud. “The United States government has worked consistently throughout 2004 to promote a free, fair campaign and election in Ukraine,” he said. “We have tried to ‘raise the bar’ for fraud by focusing our assistance in ways that would help to expose large-scale fraud (such as parallel vote counts and independent exit polls).” And he pointed to the discrepancy between exit polls and the official vote count to argue that the Nov. 22, 2004, Ukraine election was stolen. He said, “It is impossible to know what the real numbers were, but a large-scale (20,000 respondents), nation-wide anonymous exit poll conducted by a consortium of three highly respected research organizations (partially funded by the United States Government) projected Yushchenko the winner.” The results of the Dec. 23, 2004, repeat election bore Tefft out, as a victorious Yushchenko, battling the effects of an assassination attempt by poisoning, was elected to office.
2. The Need for an Exit Poll to Verify U.S. Election Integrity
2.1. Problems with U.S. Elections
Few people are as familiar with running fair elections as former President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center has monitored more than 50 elections worldwide. In September 2004, Carter predicted that the upcoming U.S. election would be as contentious as the one in 2000, with Florida again at the center of the storm. He wrote that “basic international requirements for a fair election are missing in Florida,” the most significant of which are:
2.1.1. “Conventional” Election Fraud
The big story in 2004 was the swing state of Ohio, with its 20 electoral votes, where the presidential election is thought to have been decided. In Ohio, secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell, in the tradition of former Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris, served both as co-chair of the 2004 Bush-Cheney Campaign and the state’s chief election official. According to the official count, Bush won the state by 118,000 votes, or 2 percent of the total vote.
The Conyers report (2005) and a variety of books (Miller 2005; Freeman and Bleifuss 2006; Fitrakis, et al forthcoming), articles (Hitchens 2005; Kennedy 2006), and film documentaries (Fadiman 2006, Brooks 2006, O’Brien 2006) by authors and directors of varied backgrounds and political perspectives document an extraordinary variety of malfeasance around Ohio:
Moreover, Ohio was almost certainly not exceptional. The pollster who conducted the 2004 exit polls, Warren Mitofsky, has said that other states – he mentioned Kentucky and Louisiana – were worse. Others have claimed that New Mexico, Florida, and Nevada all would have fared almost as badly had investigations been made there. Rather, we know of Ohio malfeasance only because, due to the closeness of the official count, it was the only state where any investigation has occurred.
2.1.2. E-voting: An Invitation to Mass Scale Election Fraud
Worse yet are the problems we cannot detect. Incredibly, despite the overwhelming protestations of computer scientists and computing professionals in general, 30 percent of Americans voted on electronic voting machines that provide absolutely no confirmation that votes are counted as cast. If machines are recording votes inaccurately because of error or malfeasance we have no way of knowing. Few people looked closely at transgressions in the 2004 US Presidential election because Bush won by 3 million votes nationwide and almost 120,000 votes in Ohio, but computer scientist and election integrity activist Bruce O’Dell observed:
"It would only take a few malicious insiders to corrupt the master copies of voting software, thereby undetectably altering the behavior of thousands of voting machines. Worse yet, rogue insiders have first-hand, detailed knowledge of any internal security mechanisms and are thus ideally equipped to subvert them. Since just three companies tally upwards of 80 percent of the U.S. vote, the potential risk of systematic nationwide manipulation of vote counting equipment by a small group of rogue insiders cannot be dismissed ... These considerations are so obvious to computer professionals that an overwhelming majority of 95 percent of the computer scientists and software engineers polled by the Association for Computing Machinery in 2004 opposed deployment of unauditable electronic voting systems."
O’Dell also observed: “The ACM is a large group of professionals of very diverse political backgrounds. Outrage is essentially universal across my profession. Imagine, if 95 percent of a group of structural engineers said a bridge will fall down if you drive on it, would anyone in their right mind still drive on it?” Americans think of Florida 2000 as a nightmare, but at least in Florida we have a partial accounting of what happened. In 2002 and 2004 we had elections that in general seemed to go smoothly but produced unexpected results. DRE voting systems made it impossible to know whether voters behaved unpredictably or the count was tainted by electronic glitches or vote fraud.
2.1.3. Damage Done from Suspicions Left to Fester
Jim Schiller (1999), a Southeast Asian scholar observed: “Elections allow winners to say to losers: ‘You have had your say, but we have won. Now you must follow the rules and let us go ahead with our policies.’” But those who lost the election will accept the victors as legitimate only if they believe that they, in fact, had a fair shot, and that even though they may have lost this time, they have a fair chance to prevail in subsequent elections.
A Zogby Interactive online poll one month after the 2004 election revealed that 28.5 percent of respondents thought that questions about the accuracy of the official count in the election were “very valid,” and another 14 percent thought that concerns were “somewhat valid.” Even if our election processes were absolutely honest, the fact that so many doubt that they are undermines the credibility of our government. Our shockingly low turnout, among the lowest in all modern democracies, is in part a result of this lack of confidence in the results. An election can by 100 percent accurate, but so long as there are justified suspicions are left to fester, the role of elections to confer legitimacy on elected officials has already been lost.
2.2. Lack of Safeguards on U.S. Elections
Transgressions such as these can and do happen because none of the groups that Americans look towards to safeguard the elections effectively did so.
2.2.1. Elections Officers
Rather than acting as impartial arbiters, Chief Elections officers can themselves be the greatest problem. Table 1 lists just a few of the violations in just two states from the two most recent presidential elections.
Table 1. Vote Manipulation by Campaign Managers / Chief Election Officers
Florida 2000 (Katherine Harris)
Ohio 2004 (Ken Blackwell)
On Dec. 7, 2004, the Libertarian and Green Parties in Ohio requested that Ohio’s eighty-eight counties recount the vote, paying $113,600 to have it done.
Ohio law says that in a recount, a random 3 percent of a county’s votes, from randomly selected precincts, must be counted by hand. But instead of auditing randomly selected precincts as required by law, election officials hand chose precincts that they could easily balance, aided by a “cheat sheet” provided by the voting machine manufacturer.
2.2.2. The Courts
In Battle for Florida, deHaven-Smith, a professor of public policy at Florida State University, writes, “As an expert on Florida government and policy, I had been . . . aware that Florida’s election laws were being undermined and subverted by the very people who were responsible for assuring their proper execution.” DeHaven-Smith expected the dispute over the Florida 2000 election to lead to reforms in the electoral processes similar to those that arose from flawed presidential elections in 1800 and 1876. But, that did not happen. He writes:
What alarmed me was not the malfeasance and misfeasance of high officials but rather the inability of both the public and the media … to conduct a postmortem of the election fiasco, determine who was responsible for the electoral breakdown, hold officials accountable for any crimes, and enact constitutional and statutory reforms as necessary to root out corruption and to correct flaws in the system.
DeHaven-Smith, a scholar of the political history of Western Civilization, notes that the United States in undermining democracy is following a path of ancient Athens and Rome. Referring to the two great democracies of antiquity, he writes:
. . . the first step of degeneration was a subversion of law in the name of higher values, such as stability and national security; and the decline into tyranny went unchecked by institutionalized oversight bodies, which we now refer to as the courts, because these bodies themselves became involved in the rivalry fueling the downward spiral.
2.2.3. The Media
Since Bush v. Gore, the U.S. media have systematically avoided any reporting of serious election dysfunctions. Until very recently, the threats posed by electronic voting have largely been ignored.
A broad variety of commentators have commented on the press’ unwillingness to cover and challenge the administration on important issues. Longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas (2006) insists that the press has been converted from watchdogs to “lap dogs.” Foremost among these issues has been the election. Mark Crispin Miller (2005) showed dozens of examples of how “America's servile press” refused to cover malfeasance indicating that Bush may not have won the election. One example will here suffice: Although an exit-poll discrepancy halfway around the world in the Ukraine generated front-page headlines here that very same month, an equivalent exit-poll discrepancy here in the United States was insufficient to even make the news. That despite the fact that there were many methodological shortcomings in the Ukraine exit polls, whereas no apparent methodological flaws in the US poll were found that could have caused the discrepancy.
2.2.4. The Opposition
Perhaps the most important reason suspect election results were ignored and a systemic lack of integrity allowed to fester, was that the Democrats did not challenge the count. The thinking goes that if the losing candidate does not question the results, it must be because he or she did in fact lose. After all, if there were even some chance that they actually won, it would seem clear that they would vigorously contest the results. But apparently, that is not the case.
Two accounts, by author Mark Crispin Miller, and longtime Kerry adviser, Jonathan Winer, state that Kerry “suspects that the election was stolen, but that he didn’t challenge the official results because he lacked hard proof and anticipated a firestorm of criticism if he pressed the point.”
Winer, who is also a former deputy assistant secretary of state, told Parry, “Kerry heard all the disquieting stories, but he didn’t have the evidence to do more.” Winer said that the “disquieting stories” included Republican election officials in Ohio providing an inadequate number of voting machines to heavily Democratic precincts and reports from voters who said that when they cast their ballots on DRE electronic voting machines they saw their vote for Kerry transferred to Bush. On top of that, Winer said, Kerry was mindful of what had happened in 2000, when Gore won the popular vote but lost the election after five Republicans on the Supreme Court stepped in and stopped the recount.
According to Winer, Kerry didn’t believe evidence existed that could prove the 2004 Bush-Cheney Campaign committed election fraud in 2004. Further, Kerry knew he would be harshly criticized if he challenged the election results without compelling proof that a crime had been committed.
2.3. Why Media-Sponsored Exit Polls are Inadequate for Election Verification
Given the myriad problems associated with US elections, the current national trend toward relying on electronic voting systems to record our votes inspires little faith in the official count. It would seem that a well-conducted exit poll that confirmed the official count would be about the only reason we would have to believe the results of election systems that used electronic voting and other unverified machine counts. And that a large discrepancy between exit poll results and the official count would raise a field of red flags.
2.4.1. Different Purposes
The overriding reason why the NEP exit poll cannot be used for election verification is that the media consortium that owns it refuses to consider election verification in its domain. One might wonder why this is, given the expectation that the reporting of election transgressions would be news, and in fact reporting of election transgressions elsewhere is news. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the media refuse to consider the possibility of exit poll use for this purpose.
The pollsters have taken great pains to argue that their polls were not designed to verify election results, but rather to provide election coverage support to subscribers -- as one set of data that the networks could use to project winners and to explain voting patterns, i.e., who voted for whom, and why people voted as they did.
2.4.2. Lack of Transparency
Part of the reason the U.S. exit poll discrepancy went unreported in the media -- and simultaneously raised suspicion on the web -- is secrecy and confusion about the data and what exactly is being characterized as the exit poll. If you go to the CNN website or any other website on which 2004 exit poll data are available, you’ll see numbers very different from those released on Election Day (Freeman and Bleifuss 2006). This is because the survey results originally collected and presented to subscribers were subsequently “corrected” to conform to official tallies.
The pollsters explain this as a natural procedure: the “uncorrected” data were preliminary; once the counts come in, they recalibrate their original data on the assumptions that the count is correct, and that any discrepancies must have been due to imbalanced representation in their samples or some other polling error.
Whatever the merits of “correcting” exit poll data, it obscures the issue of why the “uncorrected” polls were so far off – and even the fact of the discrepancy itself. Although this calibration process may seem perfectly natural to NEP, it confuses nearly everyone else, even sophisticated analysts intimately involved in voting issues. The MIT-Caltech Voting Project, for example, issued a report concluding that exit poll data were consistent with state tallies and that there were no discrepancies based on voting method, including electronic voting systems. But they used these adjusted data to validate the process. In other words, they used data in which the count is assumed correct to prove that the count is correct! Sadly, this report was used to dismiss allegations that anything might be awry.
On Dec. 5, 2004, the MIT-Caltech Voting Technology Project corrected its miscalculation and issued an addendum to the report that acknowledged both their mistake and the fact that the exit-poll discrepancy was real:
Early polls released [and cited by the Voting Technology Project in its report “Voting Machines and the Underestimate of the Bush Vote”] were “corrected” to more closely correspond with officially reported election results, and therefore did not accurately represent the large inaccuracies in exit poll data.
No corresponding correction was ever issued in the New York Times or the Washington Post, which also cited the Voting Technology Project report. The public record was thus not corrected where it mattered most.
2.4.3. Refusal to Share Relevant Data
The most important reason, however, why an alternative independent exit poll is necessary is because the media treats the data as strictly proprietary. The data needed to properly investigate the integrity of the election have never been made available to independent researchers. Rather, it remains the property of the NEP consortium that commissioned the exit polls, which says it cannot be released. NEP pollsters claim that this is because it could violate confidentiality agreements, i.e., that under some extreme circumstances one conceivably might be able to figure out how one unusual individual in an unusually homogenous precinct may have said he or she voted. Not all American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) members concur with this assessment. Pollster John Zogby, Freeman (2006), and others have sharply criticized the failure to release this data. The industry statement of professional standards and ethics, “Best Practices for Survey and Public Opinion Research” which reputable polling firms were expected to uphold states members should “Disclose all methods of the survey to permit evaluation and replication.” (Warren 2003:51). Be that as it may, the fact remains that independent researchers are not permitted to see the data.
America needs an independent exit poll. Like the rest of the world, Americans deserve to know when an election has been tampered with, and deserve to have confidence in elections that have been run fairly. Media-sponsored exit polls, done for profit without transparency, cannot serve the purpose of election verification. An exit poll whose results and methodologies are in the public domain is a crucial piece of election protection.
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