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    What America Thinks
    Crackdown on Pollsters

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Jan. 19, 1998

    Big Brother is watching the world's pollsters. From Indonesia to Peru and points in between, governments are taking an increased interest in survey research. And that's not good news, say the researchers who have reviewed the current state of polling in 78 countries around the world.

    "There is indeed a problem, much bigger than anticipated," wrote George Vassiliou, chairman of the Foundation for Information, which directed the study. "There are still many countries where it is not permitted to conduct and publish opinion polls. In some countries, unprofessional polls are conducted which create problems, and in several others restrictions of one or another kind are in existence. Even among the western democracies there are many which seek to prohibit the publication of opinion polls one, two or even three weeks prior to an election."

    The study was sponsored by the World Association for Public Opinion Research, the leading professional association of pollsters working outside the United States, and the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research (ESOMAR), which created the Foundation for Information two years ago to battle attempts by government to restrict the collection and use of survey data and other types of information.

    The research team that conducted the study found more countries than ever before are instituting embargoes on pre-election surveys. By their count, 21 countries currently have publication and broadcast embargoes prior to election day, with another nine restricting release only on election day.

    Embargoes are anathema to survey researchers, particularly those who poll for news organizations.

    "We believe that the freedom to carry out and publish the results of public opinion polls is a fundamental democratic right," Vassiliou wrote. "It is just as fundamental as the freedom of the media to publish comments and opinions on the issues of the day."

    The nature and scope of these embargoes runs the gamut. In France, it is illegal to publish the results of pre-electoral polls seven days before an election. Since national and local elections in France typically are conducted on consecutive Sundays, "if a general election is immediately followed by a local election, this can effectively mean a 14-day moratorium on the publication of pre-electoral polls," researchers reported.

    Elsewhere in Europe, Luxembourg and Turkey outlaw the publication or broadcast of survey results within 30 days of an election, the longest moratorium in Europe. In South Africa, there's a six-week embargo.

    The researchers found that Latin America has the highest frequency of embargoes. In Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, there is a 15-day embargo. Colombia and Chile have seven-day embargoes, with a 30-day embargo currently under discussion in Chile (Colombia actually has bucked the trend: It recently recently reduced its 10-day embargo to seven days.)

    In Canada, there is a 72-hour embargo, which does not include Quebec and applies only to federal elections.

    Overall, researchers found that the number of countries that enforce publication moratoriums prior to elections has risen since 1984, "and the risk of a more widespread introduction of such regulations is also evident. We find this development in all parts of the world," according to the report of the study group's findings.

    That's bad news, indeed.

    "Why this should be so in a modern democratic state defies all logic," Vassiliou writes. "It is said that voters need a 'quiet period' in which to contemplate and reflect for a few days before casting their votes. Yet no one seeks to ban politicians from expressing their opinions right up to the day of an election. Nor does anyone seek to ban newspapers or the broadcast media from writing and publishing highly colored and often extremely one-sided articles about the political issues of the day. And yet it is apparently the case that many believe that ordinary voters should be denied access to relatively objective information about how other people like themselves think and feel about the issues of the day."

    Embargoes and moratoriums on release of pre-election poll results are only part of the problems facing pollsters in other countries, researchers found.

    As if France's two-week embargo weren't onerous enough, French law currently offers survey respondents access to "information which concerns them and the names of those who have received this information." One unforeseen consequence is that some political candidates have tried to obtain access to unpublished poll results in which their names had been mentioned. "So far research institutes have refused to comply," though the matter is now in French courts.

    In other countries, government takes a more direct role in public opinion polling. Kenya and Colombia require that a polling organization obtain a government license to operate. Indonesia requires pollsters to get government approval on a project-by-project basis.

    Part of the reason for this increase in government interest is the increasing number and influence of surveys around the world. And with the spread of polling has come increased problems with badly conducted surveys or simply fraudulent polls.

    "There appear to be some 500 to 600 [polling] organizations in the 78 countries covered in this study. Unprofessional polls are reported to be a problem in most countries," the study found. In one out of four countries, the problem is considered a "serious" one – thus prompting more restrictions.

    "In a growing number of countries with such legislation, data privacy considerations might eventually lead to a concentration of political polling by formally recognized – and even possibly formally licensed companies, which will take some of the less serious pollsters out of the picture."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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