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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 for whom the voter plans to vote, or some similar formulation, an exit poll asks for whom the voter actually voted. 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.
There are different views on who invented the exit poll. Marcel van Dam, Dutch sociologist and former politician, claims to be the inventor, by being the first to implement one during the Dutch legislative elections on February 15, 1967. Other sources say Warren Mitofsky, an American pollster, was the first. For CBS News, he devised an exit poll in the Kentucky gubernatorial election in November that same year. Notwithstanding this, the mention of the first exit polls date back to the 1940s when such a poll was held in Denver, Colorado.[not in citation given]
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.
The distribution of votes is not even across different polling stations, and also varies at different times of day. As a result, a single exit poll may give an imperfect picture of the national vote. Instead, the exit poll is primarily used to calculate swing and turnout. Pollsters return to the same polling stations at the same times at each election, and by comparing the results with previous exit polls they can calculate how the distribution of votes has changed in that constituency. This swing is then applied to other similar constituencies, allowing an estimate of how national voting patterns have changed. The polling locations are chosen to cover the entire gamut of society and where possible, to include especially critical marginal seats. Data is presented in one of three ways, either as a table, graph or written interpretation.
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.
Because exit polls require a baseline to compare swing against, they are not reliable for one-off votes such as the Scottish independence referendum or the UK EU membership referendum. Because exit polls can't reach people who voted by postal ballot or another form of absentee voting, they may be biased towards certain demographics and miss swings that only occur among absentee voters. For example, in the May round of the Austrian presidential election, 2016, exit polls correctly pointed to a narrow lead for Norbert Hofer among those who voted at a polling station. However, the postal votes (which made up about 12% of the total vote) were slightly but definitively in favour of his rival Alexander Van der Bellen, and ultimately gave Van der Bellen victory.
Organizations that conduct election exit polling
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In the United States, the National Election Pool (NEP), consisting of ABC, AP, CBS, CNN, FOX News, and NBC, conducts a joint election exit poll. Since 2004 this exit poll has been conducted for the NEP by Edison Media Research.
The release of exit poll data in the US has been met with increased scrutiny in recent years. In the 2012 election protocols to quarantine the release of data were put in place.
In Egypt, the Egyptian center for public opinion research (baseera) conducted in 2014 two exit polls; the constitution referendum exit poll and the presidency elections exit polls. These exit polls are considered the first exit polls to be conducted not only in Egypt but also in the Middle East (www.baseera.com.eg).
Criticism and controversy
Widespread criticism of exit polling has occurred in cases, especially in the United States, 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. States have tried and failed to restrict exit polling, however it is protected by the First Amendment. 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 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 Florida before the polls closed in the Florida panhandle, as part of the westernmost area of the state is 1 hour behind the main peninsula.
Some countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany, have made it a criminal offence to release exit poll figures before all polling stations have closed, while others, such as Singapore, 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.
In Bulgaria, where the announcement of exit polling results is illegal in the election day and despite an explicit ban to this effect, many news agencies regularly publish "rankings" of various seemingly unrelated subjects throughout election days. Examples of such spoof rankings from the 2013 elections include made-up "weather forecasts", fake "tourist information", the popularity of non-existent computer games, humorously-titled "literature" and even a list of most popular brothels. In the first example, the temperatures are shown to be highest on Pozitano street and at the NDK (respectively the headquarters of the BSP and GERB parties), while in the second, the most popular tourist destination in the country is reported to be the small town of Bankya (home of GERB leader Boyko Borisov), followed by Buzludzha – the mountain peak seen as the symbolic home of the BSP.
There was a widespread controversy during the Indian general election, 2014 when the Election Commission of India barred media organisations from displaying exit poll results until the votes had been counted. This was followed by a strong protest from the media which caused the Election Commission to withdraw its statement and confirm that the exit polls can be shown at 6:30 PM on 12 May after the last vote is cast.
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