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Opinion polls should be made more transparent, not banned

There are many reasons why election forecasts made on the basis of opinion polls should be treated with caution. Conducting opinion polls on voting intention in India is incredibly difficult, due to the social complexity, the variation in political context and the sheer logistical practicalities of conducting a survey that is representative of the public. Yet the idea that opinion polls in the run-up to elections should be banned is a real threat to democratic freedom.

Politicians, especially those in government, like to control access to information. Opinion polls provide insights into public attitudes and opinions that often challenge the assertions of party politicians. A robust and transparent process for conducting public opinion surveys is essential for an informed electorate and democratic accountability.

Advocates of a poll ban have focused on the integrity of the organisations that conduct election surveys, suggesting the process is corrupt and outcomes are manipulated. If opinion polls are merely uninformed constructs with no reflection of political reality then surely the right response is to ignore them, not ban them? Another argument suggests that information from opinion polls confuses voters, or in the convoluted language of the Election Commission, “would be a deleterious intrusion into the mind of the voter”. This seems to be a rather condescending view of the Indian voter, and at odds with an electorate that appears to be responsive and relatively sophisticated in holding candidates and parties to democratic account.

The EC has also argued that an opinion poll ban is justified as it operates in some of the “advanced democracies of the world”, and notes the practice in countries such as Canada, Italy, Turkey and Argentina. Indeed, surveys by the World Association for Public Opinion Research show many countries do prohibit opinion polling, and the number has increased since the 1990s. Yet most countries manage to hold elections with no prohibition of pre-election polling, and this includes most of the consolidated democracies across the world.

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