The point of an election campaign is to influence the voter, and to artificially try and prevent one form of influence – opinion or exit polls – is counter-productive.
The commission is the instrument to ensure informed consent of the voter, not the end-goal of democracy.
The Election Commission’s (EC) decision to get an online editor of Dainik Jagran arrested for publishing an exit poll when the polling process is far from complete is a needless attack on free speech. While the editor is out on bail, it is worth challenging the arguments and assumptions underlying the ban, which was sanctified by a change in the Representation of the People Act in 2010.
The commission, in fact, wanted to go further and sought the right to curb both pre-poll opinion surveys and exit polls in 2013, but luckily it remained a dead idea. It speaks volumes for our political parties’ commitment to free speech that all of them barring the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wanted to give the commission these powers. Clearly, the non-BJP parties were spooked by early polls showing a rising tide of support for Narendra Modi. The attempt to ban some kinds of polls is clearly self-serving for some politicians.
While the argument banning opinion polls before election dates can simply not be countenanced, the one on banning exit polls needs deeper refutation. The two principal arguments, and a derivative one, favouring a ban are the following:
One, exit polls disclosed in the early stages of polling may impact voting patterns in the latter stages.
Two, these polls can be manipulated to show one party or the other in the lead, in a bid to influence voters.
Three, a derivative argument emanating from the above two points is that extraneous factors should not be allowed to distort voter intentions and final choices. She must exercise her franchise in a hermetically-sealed bubble.
None of these arguments hold, when examined closely.
First, if elections are about choice, tactical voting, or tactical non-voting, are also choices. If, say, a voter believes that the earlier phase of voting went one way, he can change his mind in order to impact the vote in later stages. Tactical voting happens even without exit polls, as parties put up dummy candidates, and religious and caste groups vote differently in different constituencies in order to defeat a party they are against, etc. If voter behaviour is about voting for or against someone, is it any business of the EC to insist that she should be voting only in the way she initially planned to? If more information results in different patterns of voter behaviour, there is nothing wrong in it.
The only thing to guard against is voter laziness, where he or she does not go to vote thinking it is all over. What is worth defending is the voter’s right to vote as he or she wants to, and to change his or her mind at the last minute, without coercive pressures. Exit polls are merely additional information inputs and not a deterrent to choice. In any case, the alleged damage exit polls may do can easily be done by political parties claiming victory after one phase and by newspapers or TV channels hinting at how the vote went. A mere ban on exit polls does not automatically shut off a source of critical information for the voter. By denying the voter this information, the EC is effectively limiting voter choices, which is unwarranted in a free election. What information the voter does not get formally, she will seek informally, which may be worse.
Second, the argument that some exit polls may be dubious and fake does not hold much water. When fake news and paid news happen in most elections, and politicians can anyway convey biases through innuendo and dog-whistle statements that appeal to baser instincts, the assumption that only exit polls are distortive of voting intentions is questionable. The commission should not presume that voters are fools, who will get taken in by exit poll misrepresentations. These are exaggerated fears, and can anyway be fanned by local media and through whisper campaigns that the commission can do nothing about. The antidote to fake or doctored news is exposure of these sources, not a ban. Nothing distorts choice like bans.
Three, the commission’s assumption that voters must exercise choice in an antiseptic environment is plain wrong. Nobody makes choices in a vacuum, and, try as it might, the EC cannot provide a bubble of isolation in which the voter decides whom to vote for in an election. Pressures from family, community, friends and material incentives all play a part in voter decisions. The voter has to decide amidst this cacophony. A ban on exit polls is hardly going to be decisive in cutting out the noise.
But one also needs to hold a mirror to the EC's own failings to implement what it believes in.
If it thinks that exit polls are that detrimental to free choice, why does it hold elections spread over such large timeframes? This time, for example, three mini states (Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand), one midi state (Punjab) and one mega state (UP) are going to the polls. What stopped the commission from finishing the four smaller polls in one day, and the whole of UP in another? If the Lok Sabha elections can be held over seven or eight phases, what is the earthy need to use the same time frame for one big state?
The commission’s job is to hold the elections quickly and then move on. By giving itself extended time to hold elections in slow motion, it is giving itself needless importance and control over the discourse longer than needed. In the process, it is stamping on free speech, when the whole purpose of an election is to allow politicians, the citizenry, and the media to use this freedom to enable voters to make a choice.
The point of an election campaign is to influence the voter, and to artificially try and prevent one form of influence – opinion or exit polls – is counter-productive. The EC should stop thinking that the purpose of the polls is to give its own views predominance. The commission is the instrument to ensure informed consent of the voter, not the end-goal of democracy.
Grow up, EC.