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Egyptian election problems and how exit polls can help

As Egypt votes for the first time after the ousting of President Mubarak, many are worried about election fraud. There are good reasons for concern. Egypt has a long history of systematic vote rigging. Many of those who administered fraudulent elections in the past remain in their jobs. The military council has barred most foreign poll monitors from supervising the election, citing the need to protect Egypt’s sovereignty. Other concerns include an extremely complex electoral law, limited resources of the High Electoral Commission (HEC), the participation of members of the corrupt NDP.

More importantly, the choice to space out the election is extremely dangerous. If the results are not released right away, the possibility of fraud is magnified. If on the other hand the results are released immediately during the long ongoing elections, the announced results can influence the choice of the electorate. From my understanding the HEC has opted for an approach which combines the worst of both scenarios. It will announce the results from the individual candidate list set and defer the results from the list-based sets till the end of the voting process.

How can exit polls help?

In my opinion, the importance of conducting exit polls during the Egyptian election by an experienced independent firm cannot be understated. An exit poll is a statistical sample of voters taken immediately after they have exited the voting stations. It aims to predict the outcome of an election by asking whom the voter actually voted for. Exit polls are a well-known and useful check against election fraud. This is done by comparing them to official results when they come out later. The polls can also be used as an estimate for the degree of election fraud.

One example is the Venezuelan recall referendum of 2004 to determine whether Hugo Chávez, the current President, should be recalled from office. The Coordinadora Democrática , a coalition of opposition parties, commissioned an American firm to conduct an exit poll. By showing an opposite result to the official voting data the exit polls alerted authorities to the possibility of election fraud and led to an independent audit that reviewed the results of 150 randomly selected election sites. In the Ukraine, similar polling led Viktor Yushchenko and his supporters to claim the presidential election was rigged and resulted in what became known as the “Orange Revolution”.

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 type of information.

Notwithstanding their many advantages, exit polls have their limitations and as with any statistical sample are accompanied by a margin of error. However, due to the very high turnout in Egyptian elections, an exit poll would sample a large amount of voters leading to an extremely low sampling error. Typically about 1000 responses are seen as adequately representative of most opinion polls.

Again, one of the criticisms of exit polls is that announcing their results can influence the choice a future voter makes. In the case of Egypt’s elections, as explained earlier, the risk of influence would be magnified exponentially since the voting process is extended over four months. This problem can be overcome if the results of the poll are withheld until the official results are out and then compare the two. If there’s a large discrepancy between them one should consider the possibility of electoral fraud.

About T. Fouad, MD

Blogging on Egypt, Middle East Politics. Economics. Oncology. Egyptian Liberal, Doctor. كتابة عن مصر والشرق الأوسط, سياسة واقتصاد, طبيب مصري ليبرالي. تابعوني على تويتر @FouadMD


4 thoughts on “Egyptian election problems and how exit polls can help

  1. I do have my concerns about the accuracy of exit polls in predicting true outcomes, but that only applies when an election is already quite fair.

    But in the case of countries like Egypt and Venezuela, yes, I think it could be instrumental in gauging the amount of fraud.

    With that said, this last elections, aside from some marginal violations by some (possibly all) of the parties, there was no records of outright fraud. But still, having an extra check on the elections’ validity using an exit poll couldn’t possibly hurt.

    Posted by Islam Hussein | December 15, 2011, 2:40 am
  2. The exit poll recall in Venezuela was highly suspect. Conducted by US funded anti-Chavez NGO Súmate, who’s leader supported the 2002 military coup against Chavez. In Jimmy Carter’s words “in order to build up, not only the expectation of victory, but also to influence the people still standing in line”.
    Most independent observers dismissed it as an anti-Chavez tactic rather than a pro-democracy one and that also goes for Súmate. Not all NGOs are neutral benevolent groups. Pick a better example.

    Posted by Claudio Contreras. | March 8, 2012, 5:17 am
  3. Not sure what happened to my previous post but I’ll say again. The exit poll itself was fraudulent in Venezuela. It was conducted on behalf of a US funded, anti-Chavez NGO called Súmate and widely dismissed by independent observers. The chief of Súmate signed a petition supporting the military coup of 2002 against the Chavez administration. You are in error if you identify with the Venezuelan opposition as democratic. They are anything but. It was their snipers that killed innocent protesters in 2002, not the elected government’s.

    Posted by Claudio Contreras | March 8, 2012, 7:43 am
    • Thanks for your comment. I realize that results of exit polls are generally contentious and have no reason to identify with the Venezuelan opposition. But our elections have been historically fraudulent. There aren’t many examples where exit polls were used with the aim of detecting fraud. The process is what concerned me and I believe it would be very useful in Egypt.

      Posted by T. Fouad, MD | March 8, 2012, 2:47 pm

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