A little after 6 pm Sunday, television screens across India will come alive with exit polls predicting the results of the 17th Lok Sabha elections. It’s hard to know what to make of all the sound and fury, so here’s a handy Public Safety Announcement of the four things you need to know before watching the exit polls.
1. For one, they’re technically all illegal. The part of the Representation of People Act that disallows media organisations from broadcasting exit polls until the elections in all the constituencies are over technically also bans exit polls from being conducted while polls are on. Section 126A of the Act says:
“No person shall conduct any exit poll and publish or publicise by means of the print or electronic media or disseminate in any other manner, whatsoever, the result of any exit poll during such period, as may be notified by the Election Commission in this regard.”
The Election Commission reiterated this language in an advisory put out on 23 March, which said: “… attention is also invited to Section 126A of the R.P. Act 1951, which prohibits conduct of Exit poll and dissemination of its results during the period mentioned therein, i.e. the hour fixed for commencement of poll in the first phase and half an hour after the time fixed for close of poll for the last phase in all the States.”
So technically, all exit polls must be conducted after the last vote of the last phase has been cast. This arises from an amendment to the RPA introduced in 2009, and implemented more forcefully by the EC in the last few years. There is judicial sanction too. In 2017, a Goan media house sought to conduct exit polls on 4 February, the day Goa voted in its assembly election, but broadcast them only on 8 March, after all the states with assembly elections had finished voting. The high court rejected its plea.
This is clearly not what pollsters have been doing. All pollsters conducted exit polls just after polling in each phase, and all they’ll be doing on Sunday is adding the exit poll results from the last phase and getting ready for a night of television.
But the Election Commission isn’t likely to press this point. In 2017, sources in the Election Commission had said that as long as pollsters did not broadcast or leak their exit poll numbers before the last date of voting, the EC did not intend to proactively go after them.
2. Social media has made a mockery of this ban. Exit poll findings have been circulating unofficially on WhatsApp since the first phase got over. Then, on 13 May, news agency IANS put out a since-deleted tweet seemingly summarising what “individual psephologists” are saying. The Election Commission reportedly asked Twitter India to take down some posts concerning exit polls and sought explanations from news organisations that reproduced the IANS poll.
3. Pollsters who don’t reveal their methodology should not be taken seriously. Too often, an exit poll’s success is measured purely in terms of its accuracy, rather than in terms of its methodology. But if you do not see the pollster’s sample size, sample selection methodology, sample representativeness and margin of error among other things that flash on your screen, there’s reason to suspect the process that went into the poll and its motivation.
At last count, at least eight pollsters will release national exit polls Sunday; News18-IPSOS, India Today-Axis, Times Now-CNX, NewsX-Neta, Republic-Jan Ki Baat, Republic-CVoter, ABP-CSDS and Today’s Chanakya. The EC advisory requires TV channels and newspapers to disclose their methodology. It will be worth keeping a track of which pollsters and channel combination does the best job in terms of transparency.
Treating all polls as equal is another dangerous path that news organisations follow. Channels, which have not commissioned their own polls, like NDTV, usually do a “Poll of Polls”, which is a simple average of all published polls. Pollsters like Nate Silver in the US, whose models involve predictions arising from other people’s polls (and not conducting their own), employ far more sophisticated methods; they apply a correction factor for past bias, sample size and past accuracy among other variables. A Poll of Polls, on the other hand, means that a Today’s Chanakya – which blamed its 2015 Bihar results debacle on an assistant mis-assigning columns and never reveals who commissions its polls – is treated on par with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which has studied elections for over 50 years.
4. Yes, exit polls have got it horribly wrong in the past. Most pollsters got the 2014 election right, though many missed the scale of the BJP’s victory. However, historically, exit polls have tended to overestimate the NDA’s performance. [See Chart 1] There isn’t reason to think that things have got much better since then; exit polls for assembly elections post-2014 have often missed the mark.
On Sunday evening, exit poll-viewing is going to be the favourite spectator sport for most Indians, but there isn’t much reason to be sure that it’s taking us any closer to what went on in more than a million polling booths over the last month.
The author is a Chennai-based data journalist. Views are personal.