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What Makes an Exit Poll Legitimate?

We here at Edison are proud to be the sole providers of exit polling data for the National Election Pool this Election Day. It’s a responsibility that we take very, very seriously indeed, because we know that our work will be studied and scrutinized for years to come. On election night, it will be our exit polling data that you will see when you watch the election night returns on television, and that work is the product of decades of expertise, care, and the unfailing commitment to excellence of my Edison colleagues.

For this election, we have been seeing a number of reports on social media and other outlets that various entities are considering doing their own exit polls on November 8th. While we certainly believe in fair and open elections, we also think it’s important to be able to ascertain the motives and methods of any exit polling effort.

If you vote on Election Day, you might be asked to take an exit poll. If it’s from us, you’ll see our logo, as well as the logos of all of the major U.S. news networks clearly identified on the materials being used by our pollsters. But if you don’t see this, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the exit poll isn’t legitimate. In Utah, for instance, the Utah Colleges exit poll has been administered by student volunteers from BYU and other universities since 1982, and has been a valuable resource both for academic study and for understanding the Utah electorate.

Other efforts, however, may not be quite so transparent. With that in mind, I asked Joe Lenski, Edison’s guru of all things exit polling, to come up with this list of how to tell if an exit poll is legit.

  • First and foremost, a legitimate exit poll should use proper sampling techniques – both to identify sample precincts and to identify sample voters within each precinct.
  • The exit poll interviewers should be rigorously trained and non-partisan.
  • The questionnaire should not have any biased or leading questions.
  • A hallmark of a legitimate exit poll is a guarantee of the respondents’ privacy, confidentiality and anonymity–an exit poll should be every bit as secret a ballot as the actual vote, and the pollster should not know the voters’ responses. No exit poll should require the respondent to publicly state their choices.
  • A properly executed exit poll accounts for absentee and early voters who will not be voting at election day voting locations, a practice that is becoming increasingly common and requires a great deal of care on the pollster’s part to properly model.
  • The methodology should also adjust for non-response bias by demographics that can be observed by the interviewer, such as age, race and gender. If a voter sampled for interviewing is missed for any reason (they refuse, for example) their demographic information is still captured observationally and these data are factored into the final weighting of the results.
  • Exit Poll interviewing should take place during almost the entire time the polls are open, in order to account for any time of day effects. Certain demographic groups might vote before or after work, for instance, while others might vote in the middle of the day–and it is important that any biases observed during those times be mitigated by coverage throughout the day.
  • Finally, any legitimate exit polling effort should be fully transparent about its methodology, questionnaire instrument and who is sponsoring or paying for the exit poll.

Now, chances are you won’t be asked to take an exit poll on Election Day. But if you are–keep the points above in mind as you participate in the voting process. And whether or not you take an exit poll, make sure you take the most important poll of all: vote on November 8th.

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