A problem with polling … do you know who your candidates are?

polls“I KNOW this sounds terrible,” murmured a friend at the start of last month, “but I don’t actually know who my candidates are.” She was surprised when I assured her that technically, no-one had known all of theirs until a few days earlier, when the official lists were made public. Not unreasonably, she had assumed the appeals for #bothvotesSNP or #bothvotesLabour were being made to citizens who were in a position to research all of the alternatives.

The list were made public, but they certainly weren’t made prominent. There is no official, central source of constituency or regional list candidates – instead, the information is tucked away on local authority websites. In some cases, tucked so well away that with exactly a week to go, the word “election” was altogether absent from several council homepages (I’m looking at you, Aberdeen, Argyll and Bute, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, North Lanarkshire, Perth and Kinross and Dunbartonshires East and West).

Sites coded to promote their most popular pages generally have election information ranked highly, but where the featured content is determined by human intervention, many councils have been directing visitors to more important business – such as, in the case of North Lanarkshire, “new pest control charges” – or relegating election information to third or fourth item in a scrolling slideshow. Only on East Ayrshire’s site was the election information unmissable a week before the big day.

Does any of this matter? Those determined to track down their candidate lists will presumably have got there in the end – albeit after a good few clicks – and those who either gave up or didn’t try in the first place will get to see the lists soon enough. Postal voters have had the opportunity to ponder and further research their list vote options, as they received the information along with their ballot papers, but it’s probably safe to say that plenty of those making their mark on Thursday will see their full set of options for the first time when they enter the booth.

It’s probably safe to say that plenty of those making their mark on Thursday will see their full set of options for the first time when they enter the booth

This has clear implications for political polling – after all, if you don’t know your options, can you state with certainty which one you’ll choose? The #bothvotes faithful probably can, but those who wish to make creative use of the additional member system* have more to ponder. And while they might diligently research their own region and pore over the relevant manifestos, if the polls suggest small parties have no chance then they might decide they have better things to do with their time. The problem with polling – or, specifically, the publication of polling results – is that it can create self-fulfilling prophecies. If the message spreads that “other” parties have no chance of gaining seats, the next set of people polled are even less likely to plump for them.

So we have a two-pronged problem: people lack information about their regional candidates, but become aware of nationwide poll results, or poll-of-poll results, and adjust their perspectives accordingly. Contenders like the Women’s Equality Party are unlikely to register on national polls since they are only standing candidates in two regions (Lothian and Glasgow), and the personal popularity of individuals on the lists (such as land reformer Andy Wightman for the Greens) is not reflected when the focus of questions is parties, not people.

The frontline work of polling can’t be much fun – the familiar click of the call centre pick-up surely prompts many to put the phone down before they even realise who’s calling, and I doubt many others have responded with the “Ooh, exciting!” I let slip when I realised I was one of the chosen few. I’d only picked up the landline phone because I’d ended another call moments earlier, and was therefore ready with an over-familiar “hello-ello”. These small samples of luddite landline-owners can make a big splash, and despite the confounding results of last year’s General Election, the media and its consumers pay attention to them.

These small samples of luddite landline-owners can make a big splash, and despite the confounding results of last year’s General Election, the media and its consumers pay attention to them

My first surprise was that the pollster adopted a somewhat casual approach to party names, reeling off the options of “Scottish Labour, Scottish National, Scottish Liberal, Scottish Conservative”. For

the “how likely…?” questions, no further explanation or scale was provided, which raises questions about how the responses are categorised (does “somewhat likely” mean the same as “quite likely”? What happens if qualifiers are mentioned?) Presumably this poll was designed to be as quick and painless as possible, rather than bogging people down with such fripperies as five-point Likert scales, but any social scientist will happily bore you senseless about why these things are really quite important. The bundling of any option into “other” creates a bias: if you were offered an ice-cream and given the choice of chocolate, strawberry, vanilla or other, it would be useful to know if the last category included tutti fruitti (the Ukip of flavours) or something much more radical and appealing like raspberry caramel brownie.

It remains to be seen what proportion of Scots head to the polls on Thursday, and whether Yes supporters will put all their eggs in the SNP basket or split their two votes. But if our electoral system is to work as intended in the future, and allow minority parties a fighting chance, more must be done to guide voters towards the information they need to make an informed choice.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.


* The Scottish media generally use “additional member system (AMS)” to describe our electoral system, but my old politics lecturer Dr Thomas Lundberg makes strong arguments against this description and in favour of “mixed-member proportional (MMP)”. I agree with him that the former gives the unfortunate impression list MSPs are inferior to their constituency colleagues.

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