Exit primaries, enter opinion polls

It is clear that Democrat, Hilary Clinton will face Republican, Donald Trump in the race for the oval office as America goes to polls November 8 this year. As we draw nigh to the polling day opinion polls become ubiquitous.

Opinion polls gauge voter intentions and attitudes and are an important part of elections coverage in most countries. Publication of opinion poll findings is a subject that arouses strong passions even in Malawi.

In the lead to elections, polling is widely assumed (and indeed marketed) for its predictive value. Often it pre-empts debate about, and even drowns out, substantive issues. The question animating this article is: how, if at all, should such polling be regulated?

To ask this question in a democracy is to invite debate about freedom of speech and the media. Established democracies take quite contrary positions on the issue. Sixteen of the twenty-seven European Union countries, for example, ban reporting of polls, although timeframes range from a full month to just 24 hours before Election Day.

In the United States media coverage of opinion polls is regarded as an integral part of free speech in elections and publication is allowed at any time. The problem is that opinion poll results - like almost any other form of expression - are not just the reflection of people's views but may also shape the views of others. That is, people may be influenced in how they vote by what they have learned from an opinion poll or what they think they have learned. The US may also not experience problems with announcing of opinion poll results at any time because campaign continues even up to the voting day.

In Malawi there is no law regulating conduct and publication of opinion polls results. However, the publication seems to be controlled by the legal provision that no campaign activity should take place with 48 hours to start of polling.

In the run up to the May 2014 elections a number of opinion polls were published, some from pollsters not known before and without physical addresses. In the absence of a regulation, the Media Code of Conduct has put some safeguards in form of guidelines for journalists on how they can report opinion polls.

The Media Code of Conduct recognizes opinion polls as an important element in election coverage because they are one way of determining public attitudes towards issues, candidates and political parties. In this regard they can enrich coverage and enable voters to get fuller picture of an election. However, opinion polls should be handled with care. Inaccurate, unprofessional, sometimes deliberately false opinion polls give a totally distorted view of the truth of public opinion or voting intentions or patterns. Therefore, in reporting opinion polls, the media need to reveal which party, individual or organization commissioned and paid for the poll, the purpose of the poll, the identity of the polling organization and its expertise in polling, the nature of the questions or issues the poll focused on, the geographic coverage and demographic profile (including segregated data) of those who were polled, the methodologies used in polling including details of the sample and the margin error. This can help them decipher a bogus opinion poll.