Are opinion polls a threat or key compass for democracy?


Opinion polls are a useful tool in a vibrant democracy, especially if they are conducted scientifically and honestly. [Courtesy]

The season of political opinion polls is upon us again. Opinion polls are surveys by research institutions or individuals targeting the public or category of people to solicit their views or opinions on certain topics or what they think about political candidates’ chances of winning an election.

Opinion polls can be conducted on voters after they have voted to determine how they have voted. These are called exit polls. The most common method used is by asking the questions that will provide the desired results.

For example, in the past, opinion polls have focused on who Kenyans support in the presidential race. Most modern polls derive from the Gallup method, invented by American George Gallup. This method involves conducting surveys by sampling a randomly selected, statistically average group of people, such as registered voters.

Ordinarily, opinion polls are a useful tool in a vibrant democracy, especially if they are conducted scientifically and honestly. They also assist service institutions like Elections Management Bodies (EMBs) to gauge the level of trust and confidence they enjoy from their customers and consumers of their services.  

However, the practice of opinion polling in Kenya has become a public relations and propaganda tool where instead of seeking public opinion, opinion polls used to create opinions on the popularity of candidates. Some candidates used to sponsor opinion polls which appeared to favour their presidential candidates and their political parties.

The situation had gotten so much out of hand that, if an opinion poll was published today, indicating candidate A and their political party were most popular; the following week, another poll would be commissioned resulting with candidate B and his party emerging as the most popular.

In addition, opinion polls became tools for influencing opinions and views of the public on candidates, leading to confusion, anxiety and tensions. It turned out that, after the general elections, the candidates who were always the most popular in opinion polls, lost leading to them and supporters claiming that they were rigged out.

The Publication of Electoral Opinion Polls Act No. 39 of 2012, was to address the problems of opinions polls, moving forward. This Act established standards and requirements before opinion polls are published.

For example, section 4 requires the first person who publishes the results of an electoral opinion poll during an electoral period and any other person who transmits those results to the public within 24 hours after they are first transmitted to the public must provide the following information together with the results: (a) the name of the sponsor of the opinion poll; (b) the name of the person or organisation that conducted the opinion poll; (c) the date on which or the period during which the opinion poll was conducted.

Section 5 requires additional information in the case of a publication of opinion polls by means other than broadcasting. The information required includes; (a) the wording of the opinion poll questions in respect of which data is obtained; (b) the name and address of the sponsor of the opinion poll; (c) the name and address of the person or organisation that conducted the opinion poll.

This is why I believe that, this law should be strictly adhered to and those paying for opinion polls and conducting them should be held accountable to ensure their independence, integrity and the veracity of the published information.

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