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Election Polls Don't Tell the Whole Story

10/14/2015 08:26 EDT | Updated 10/14/2016 05:12 EDT
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man putting ballot in a box during elections in canada

Prime Minister Diefenbaker had a way with words. When asked about public opinion research he famously said, "Dogs know best what to do with polls."

A veritable Canadian cliché. Also, accurate.

The 2015 federal election is awash with so-called information: left, right and centre. Partisans can find a poll to match almost any desired electoral outcome.

This election is being defined by national trendlines. It's not healthy for democracy. The number of minutes wasted and columns spilled in earnest of polling results that are literally worth as much as the media paid for them: nothing.

I'm not some anti-polling pundit either. At some point our firm has worked with most Canadian pollsters of note and continue to have a deep respect and ongoing relationship with several firms. We're proud to admit that we buy a lot of research to help us guide our marketing and advertising decisions because making choices based on information is usually the way to go. I like polls. No -- I'm obsessed with polls, so take it from me: they aren't all right and they sure as heck aren't all equal.

We'll spend days working over the results of a poll for a rebranding project or a communications audit, for example. Analysis isn't automatic because data alone can't tell a story. Only people can. It takes time to understand what people are telling you with their answers. Patterns must be discerned and assumptions checked.

The Canada Elections Act governs the publishing of polls during the writ period. An oft-forgotten section (the 326th) defines all the legislative requirements for the sponsors of the materials being put into the public realm. It's extensive and provides very reasonable guidelines for providing context in the reporting of polling. Polling sponsors are all over the map on how they choose to report these requirements. The industry itself is calling for more organization and standards.

Even when there isn't a clear legal requirement to disclose all information outlined in Section 326, it should be done for ethical reasons, especially when margins of error are large enough to change the purported party standings.

It would be incredible to see a decline in polling stories this week, but that's not going to happen.

Instead, I have a challenge to my friends in the media: review Section 326 of the Act. Then, add one more paragraph of context to your poll stories this week to explain what the numbers mean and how they were obtained. Just two hundred more words or a few more seconds on air -- for the sake of democracy, accuracy and fairness.

Resist the urge to predict an election that is anything but predictable.

Ian Capstick is a former NDP strategist.

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