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An election exit poll is a poll of voters taken immediately after they have exited the polling stations. Unlike an opinion poll, which asks whom the voter plans to vote for or some similar formulation, an exit poll asks whom the voter actually voted for. A similar poll conducted before actual voters have voted is called an entrance poll. Pollsters – usually private companies working for newspapers or broadcasters – conduct exit polls to gain an early indication as to how an election has turned out, as in many elections the actual result may take hours or even days to count.

Warren Mitofsky, founder of Mitofsky International, is credited with having invented the exit poll.

Purpose

Exit polls are also used to collect demographic data about voters and to find out why they voted as they did. Since actual votes are cast anonymously, polling is the only way of collecting this information.

Exit polls have historically and throughout the world been used as a check against and rough indicator of the degree of election fraud. Some examples of this include the Venezuelan recall referendum, 2004, and the Ukrainian presidential election, 2004.

Problems

Like all opinion polls, exit polls by nature do include a margin of error. A famous example of exit poll error occurred in the 1992 UK General Election, when two exit polls predicted a hung parliament. The actual vote revealed that Conservative Party Government under John Major held their position, though with a significantly reduced majority. Investigations into this failure identified a number of causes including differential response rates (the Shy Tory Factor), the use of inadequate demographic data and poor choice of sampling points.

Organizations that conduct election exit polling

The National Election Pool (NEP) consists of ABC, AP, CBS, CNN, FOX News, and NBC conduct a joint election exit poll. Since 2004 this exit poll has been conducted for the NEP by Edison Media Research.

Criticism and controversy

Widespread criticism of exit polling has occurred in cases, especially in the United States of Americamarker, where exit-poll results have appeared and/or have provided a basis for projecting winners before all real polls have closed, thereby possibly influencing election results. In the 1980 U.S. presidential election, NBC predicted a victory for Ronald Reagan at 8:15 pm EST, based on exit polls of 20,000 voters. It was 5:15 pm on the West Coast, and the polls were still open. There was speculation that voters stayed away after hearing the results. Thereafter, television networks voluntarily adopted a course of not projecting the presidential victor until after polls closed in the West, Hawaii and Alaska excluded. Additionally, the television networks have voluntarily adopted the policy of not projecting any victor within a state until all polls have closed for that state. In the 2000 U.S. Presidential election it was alleged that media organizations released exit poll results for Floridamarker before the polls closed in the Florida panhandle.

Some countries, such as the United Kingdommarker or Germanymarker, have made it a criminal offence to release exit poll figures before the polling stations have closed, while others, such as New Zealandmarker and Singaporemarker, have banned them altogether. In some instances, problems with exit polls have encouraged polling groups to pool data in hopes of increased accuracy. This proved successful during the 2005 UK General Election, when the BBC and ITV merged their data to show an exit poll giving Labour a majority of 66 seats, which turned out to be the exact figure. This method was also successful in the 2007 Australian Federal Election, where the collaboration of Sky News, Channel 7 and Auspoll provided an almost exact 53 percent two party-preferred victory to Labor over the ruling Coalition.

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