May 19 saw the last phase of voting being concluded for the 17th Lok Sabha Election. Now, the public and all the political parties are waiting with breath to see, who will be crowned the Prime Minister for the next five years.
While we wait eagerly for the results to be announced on May 23, various media organizations and private agencies have started conducting exit polls that are being keenly watched by both the political maestros and the common citizens of India.
Exit polls are common phenomena after every Lok Sabha and are not something new that has come up overnight. However, even today the accuracy of these polls are debated upon with fervour. While some claim that the exit poll results cannot be relied, upon others feel that there is some truth in them.
What are Exit Polls and How are they Carried Out?
An exit poll is conducted immediately after the voting process gets over. However, exit polls must not be confused with election polls which essentially tries to understand the mood of the nation. While election polls basically ask voters which candidate they are likely to vote for, exit polls ask whom did they vote for.
Exit polls are often considered a handy way to understand which party is likely to get majority seats in the Lok Sabha or whether a coalition government will be formed. However, it suffices to say that exit polls are not completely reliable and must be taken with a pinch of salt.
Converting the Votes into Seats – The Tricky Part of Exit Polls
There is no universal system of conducting exit polls and different agencies use different methods to come to a conclusion. However, there is one step that is common in all the methods applied in carrying out exit polls i.e. sampling. While some organizations use random sampling others carry out the systematic sampling process for the exit polls.
However, collecting data is one part of the problem as the far more formidable issue is to convert the vote share into seats. The sampling and the data collection offers a vague sense of the vote share but to actually convert it into Lok Sabha seats and to come up with a tangible result is a complex statistical and mathematical exercise. Most organizations conducting an exit poll apply the “uniform regional swing” method to convert the votes into seats.
Are the Exit Polls Accurate and Reliable?
Like we said earlier, exit polls are often unreliable and must not be trusted wholeheartedly. Let us see with the help of some examples why exit polls are not altogether reliable.
In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the exit polls claimed that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP would emerge as the ultimate winner, which was not the case, as Indian National Congress returned to power after a hiatus of eight years. Similarly, in the 2009 elections, the exit polls incorrectly predicted the margin with which the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would gain victory.
According to Pranav Gupta, a PhD student at the University of California, the exit polls are often inaccurate due to a number of factors like the voters lying about their vote, questioning bias, absence of representative and random sampling, and bad fieldwork. Apart from these, many organizations and media agencies have also been accused of tampering with the data to maintain allegiance with a particular political party.
The Relevance of Exit Polls in the Indian General Elections
The relevance and value of exit polls changes from one section of the society to the other. For the citizens and the media, the exit polls are like an adrenaline rush and a way of getting to know which political party has the chances of getting the most seats. The importance and value of the polls cease to exist in their minds the moment the actual results are announced. However, for sociologists and psephologists, all aspects of the election including the exit polls hold a deeper meaning and relevance. This is because the exit polls not only reflects the possible winner but also how the mind of the electorate works. This information holds immense relevance.
Experts are of the view that the issue of the inaccuracy of the exit polls is due to lack of transparency in the process of how these polls are carried out, absence of proper scientific guidelines, and protocols. The organizations and the agencies conducting these polls do not make public that the methods they are using to design the survey, their sample size, and the scientific methodology they are using to convert the votes into seats.
So, it is best to see the exit polls but not take it to heart and wait for the results to be announced on May 23.