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Lok Sabha elections 2019: What are exit polls and how reliable are they?

Although votes will only be counted on May 23, starting today evening a plethora of exit polls will try predicting the outcome of the Lok Sabha Elections 2019. Here's a ready reckoner on exit polls and how reliable they really are

twitter-logoBusinessToday.In | May 19, 2019 | Updated 13:43 IST
Lok Sabha elections 2019: What are exit polls and how reliable are they?
Exit polls ask voters which party did they actually vote for

Today is the last day of voting in the Lok Sabha elections 2019, bringing the curtains down on the world's largest exercise of democracy after over five weeks of polling. The counting of votes will begin at 8 am on May 23, and the process is expected to take longer than usual this time round, continuing well into the night. India will only get to know who will form the new government around 10 pm, or later, on D-day due to a larger number of votes having to be tallied against paper slips generated by voter-verified paper audit trail machines (VVPAT).

Before the actual results across 542 Lok Sabha constituencies come in, you can control your curiosity by tracking what the exit polls are saying. Here's an FAQ on what you can expect from exit poll surveys, their reliability and more:

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What are exit polls?

An election exit poll is a survey of voters that is conducted immediately after the voting is over. While election opinion polls try to gauge the mood of the nation by asking people who they are likely to vote for, exit polls ask voters which party did they actually vote for. Such polls are conducted by a number of organisations and are considered a handy barometer of what the nation may expect on the day of counting and which party is likely to end up ruling India for the next five years. But it's important to note that this is, ultimately, just educated crystal-ball-gazing and not necessarily the writing on the wall.

How are exit polls conducted?

Different agencies carry out exit polls in India using several methods, but the basic step remains the same - sampling. Some agencies conduct a random sampling of constituencies while others opt for systematic sampling. The random sampling can be of the electorate as well, covering parameters such as age, sex, caste, region and more.

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What is the genesis of such polls in the country?

Election surveys and later exit polls began gaining traction in India in mid-1980s when chartered accountant-turned-journalist Prannoy Roy conducted opinion polls to gauge voters' mood in election. In the initial years, exit polls were limited to magazines, with India Today playing the leader. The proliferation of television in the 1990s and the political uncertainty at the time popularised exit polls. The 1996 Lok Sabha election was the inflection point for such surveys with public broadcaster Doordarshan joining the bandwagon. These exit polls, reportedly conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), had accurately predicted a fractured mandate. Two years on, exit polls made to almost every major news TV channel.

When can exit poll results be released to the public?

Under Section 126A of the Representation of the People's Act, 1951, there is an embargo on exit polls from the beginning of the elections till half an hour after the final phase of voting has been held. Hence, exit polls can only be telecast post 6.30 pm today. The embargo on exit polls applies to the print as well as electronic media.

Why was this restriction imposed on exit polls?

In 2009, the Congress-led UPA government had amended the Representation of the People Act to push through Section 126A on concerns that such polls influence voting results. Subsequent research backs up the decision to ban exit polls during the voting phases. A 60-page research paper, titled 'Learning from Exit Polls in Sequential Elections: Evidence from a Policy Experiment in India' by economist Manasa Patnam in 2013 - which analysed data from the 2004 general and state elections - found that nearly 20% of the voters who came to vote during the last hours cast their ballots in favour of the parties that were leading in the exit polls in the initial phase of voting.

How accurate are the predictions made in exit polls?

Although many of the recent election results were correctly predicted by exit and opinion polls, there have also been enough misses to remind the public to take the predictions with a pinch of salt. They are, after all, based on representative samples.

To begin with, exit polls often missed the bullseye on the number of seats that winning parties ultimately land. For instance, in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress-plus was somewhat accurately predicted to win between 132 and 150 seats but the poll surveys failed to correctly estimate the influence of third force, which got 113 against prediction of as low as 34 and a high of 95 seats.

The biggest miss where exit polls are concerned has to be the 2004 elections. Almost every media organisation and pollster had predicted landslide victory for the ruling NDA alliance led by the BJP and a second term for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The party, too, was uber confident of its 'India Shining' campaign. But all of them got it horribly wrong.

When the election results were announced the NDA was reduced to 189 seats, against predictions of anything between 230 and 275 of the total 543 seats. The Congress-led coalition won 222 and ran a government first with the support of the Left and then the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

The 2009 election was another failure for the exit poll masters. The exit polls suggested an almost equal contest between the ruling UPA and challenger NDA with Nielsen's survey giving 199 and 197 seats to the two blocs respectively. In the actual results, the UPA won 262 seats and the NDA got 159. With two back-to-back misses, the exercise suffered a heavy loss of credibility.

Exit polls have also taken wrong calls in assembly elections. For instance, in the Bihar Assembly elections in 2015, the contest was between the BJP and a 'grand alliance' (mahagathbandhan) formed by arch-rivals Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal - with the Congress as the third pillar. Most of the exit polls predicted a three-digit tally for the BJP-led NDA in the 243-member house. But the final results had the NDA limited to 58 seats while the mahagathbandhan won a comfortable majority with 178 seats in its kitty. Only two out of six exit polls managed to get it right.

It remains to be seen if this exercise can repeat the success of the 2014 poll predictions, when all, save one exit poll, had accurately showed the NDA winning majority.

Which are the most reliable exit polls?

Of the dozens of post poll surveys will be thrown at you between now and May 23, the India Today-Axis My India post-poll survey is considered the most accurate. Of all the elections that took place between 2013 and 2019, India Today-Axis My India post-poll surveys have given the correct predictions in 95% cases. Since 2013, Axis My India has conducted 36 post-poll surveys out of which 34 have predicted the correct leading party/alliance. The assembly polls of Tamil Nadu in 2016 and Karnataka in 2018 were the only wrong calls. This time, having tapped around 8 lakh voters in 542 constituencies, the India Today-Axis My India findings will be India's biggest post-poll survey. You can also tune in to the AajTak Exit Poll, also conducted by Axis My India. Coverage of the AajTak Exit Poll will begin on India Today TV at 4 pm on May 23.

With PTI inputs

Also read: Lok Sabha Election 2019: Phase 7 voting today; FAQs, voting for 59 seats

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