Q&A: Why were political party members posing as pollsters?

Controversy erupts around parties’ historical approach to private polling of voters

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Green Party  leader Eamon Ryan. All three Government parties and Sinn Féin have admitted conducting private polling on voter intentions using members or activists who purported to be working for companies that didn’t exist.  File photograph: Julien Behal

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. All three Government parties and Sinn Féin have admitted conducting private polling on voter intentions using members or activists who purported to be working for companies that didn’t exist. File photograph: Julien Behal

 

Just what is happening with the political polling controversy?

Earlier this week, it emerged that Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party had all conducted private polling on voter intentions using members or activists who purported to be working for companies that didn’t exist. In some instances, business cards (Fine Gael) or fake ID badges (Sinn Féin) were distributed to them. All the parties involved say this is (relatively speaking) ancient history, with the last acknowledged incidents ranging from 2002 (Greens) to 2016 (Sinn Féin).

What’s the problem with private political polling?

Nothing. Private polls have historically been used by parties as a cost-effective alternative to professional polling when making decisions on a local level, where they have proved “incredibly invaluable”, in the words of one political veteran. National elections, the same source observes, are comprised of dozens of constituency level elections, and regional or national polling is only of so much use when deciding the relative popularity of one potential candidate over the other, or whether a candidate or party’s support base is strong enough to allow for a running mate.

How does it work?

Long-time participants in private polling estimate it emerged in the mid-1980s, with some linking it to the arrival of the Progressive Democrats under Des O’Malley, who came in with new ideas on how to do politics and maximise votes. It seems to have reached its heyday in the Fianna Fáil organisation of the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was a vital element in key decisions taken around election strategy.

One source from a large political party, who participated in private polling, describes how activists and members would “swap”, decamping to a neighbouring constituency, divide it up into zones, and try to hammer together a roughly representative set of homes according to geography and socio-economic standing.

There’s no one uniform approach, and even within parties, individual constituency organisations or politicians would devise their own polls for their own purposes. Sources say that the degree to which the information was centrally collated by party HQ or remained in a local organisation varied depending on the circumstances – from who was involved to the stage in the electoral cycle. Suffice to say, it has played a key role in many political contests up and down the country over the years.

So, what’s the problem?

The controversy has arisen not because of what was being done, but how it was done. It’s clear at this stage that many parties and individuals thought it best to invent the trappings of a polling company – ostensibly so as not to skew the results, with people’s answers potentially informed by their impression of the party.

While one source pointed the finger at Sinn Féin over the use of false IDs (“the only thing they didn’t give them was a trenchoat and a fake beard”), it’s clear that elaborate schemes have sprung up elsewhere – not least Fine Gael’s business cards for a non-existent company.

Sources involved with such operations for one large political party in the early 2000s describe a fairly casual approach to adopting fake personas and documentation, even including contact details. “Apparently there was a phone number on the card [but] it was like the Carlsberg complaints department – it would ring all day but nobody f**king answered”.

Is there any regulatory or legal issue?

Polling itself is not a heavily-regulated industry, so while pollsters have expressed deep displeasure at the risks to their industry and reputations arising from this, they’re unable to do anything about it. The Garda Commissioner has been asked by Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry to look at the issue, and political parties are expected to volunteer anything relevant arising from the practice to an ongoing audit of political parties’ use of personal data by the Data Protection Commissioner. However, at this juncture it’s not clear that personal data, rather than statistical information, was gathered. Fine Gael and Sinn Féin have said the information was anonymised and not retained.

Prof David Farrell, Head of UCD’s school of politics and international relations, suggests the Bill to establish the Electoral Commission currently making its way through the Oireachtas could be amended to force all political polling in the State to be done to certain industry standards.

“It’s not acceptable, we’re in an environment where misinformation and challenges to the truth or real news is ever more present; it’s not appropriate for this behaviour to happen at this stage,” he said.

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