Today, the Siena Research Institute released a poll showing that Gov. Cuomo’s favorability rating is at an all-time high, with more than 70 percent of New Yorkers approving of his performance. These polls are often the way politicians gauge their relationship with voters and a powerful tool for the public to voice its views on policy. As election season approches, polls from various institutions will become ever more ubiquitous. Yet poll results can often conflict and it becomes difficult to know which to take seriously.
So, how does the public know whether to trust that a given poll is scientific and fair? The New York World wants to know: Who polices the pollsters?
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What we found
If you want to be a pollster when you grow up, there’s not really a test to take or a license to obtain. Instead, most polling professionals join a professional organization that maintains codes of ethics. For-hire polling companies also have their own sets of rules for their employees, but tend to be less detailed about honest practices and best forms of methodology, according to Tom W. Smith, president of the World Association for Public Opinion Research.
Smith said when most of these professional associations formed in the 1940s, they made a deliberate choice to keep polling a non-licensed profession.“Very much like journalists, they didn’t want the government regulating them,” he said. “They want to be self policing because of free speech types of principles.”
Some of the big no-nos include using the calls to generate sale leads, and “push polling,” in which pollsters under the guise of collecting public opinion spread false or misleading information about political candidates.
Smith said the most common misstep is a failure to include detailed methodology when publishing results. First, the organizations are told they’re in violation of the code of ethics. If they refuse to publish the methodology, the standard punishment is a public censure, in which a press release and an announcement of what they have done wrong is published on the investigating organization’s website.
Smith admits that this system of accountability is not perfect. “The difference is if you’re a lawyer and you were disbarred, you can’t practice law,” he said. “Being a public opinion researcher is not a licensed occupation. There’s nothing equivalent to being disbarred.”