The Election Commission's decision to ban exit polls from being conducted or disseminated between February 4 and March 8 has left polling agencies and news channels confused about how to forecast results for Goa, Punjab and Uttarakhand which finish voting in early February.
In 2009, a new section was inserted in the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, banning the conducting and dissemination of exit polls during the entire period of a multi-phase election. While not implemented for several elections, since, the EC began reminding media organisations of the law in the last two years.
During the most recent elections, for instance, pollsters have been banned from conducting exit polls on February 4 for Goa and Punjab, which voted on that day, and can only air results on March 8, the last day of polling in Manipur and Uttar Pradesh. A Goa news channel approached the local court seeking permission to conduct but not air its opinion poll until March 8, a request that was subsequently turned down.
Mediapersons and the EC have frequently been at loggerheads over opinion polling. In 1999, similar guidelines issued by the EC were challenged in the Supreme Court and later withdrawn. Around the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the EC toyed with banning opinion polls entirely, egged on by political parties. More recently, the EC has asked the Law Ministry to extend the terms of the 2009 amendment to opinion polls as well.
However, several polling agencies admitted, while asking not to be identified, that they would be conducting exit polls anyway. "The ban is technically on exit polls and not opinion polls, which means the whole thing is anyway extremely unscientific; how is the EC to know if I am conducting an exit poll or an opinion poll?" one leading pollster said.
"News channels contracted us to conduct exit polls; we will not be able to go to people's houses in Punjab and Goa to do exit polls one month later," another pollster complained, adding that they had already conducted their exit polls. Some news channels, however, are toeing the line and will ask their polling agencies to conduct exit polls for all states on March 8, at a higher cost than usual.
Sources in the Election Commission said that the Commission would not proactively go after pollsters for conducting exit polls; as long as the polling agencies ensured that the findings were not made public or leaked, the Commission felt that the purpose of its order was being served.