CAPITAL NEWS ONLINE Vol. 23  No. 1  Sept. 26, 2008
PRINT: Polling firm asks Canadians to push its buttons Polling firm asks Canadians to push its buttons

OTTAWA | Comedian Robert Orben once asked, "Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right?"

Orben was joking, but for polling firm Ekos Research Associates, the upcoming federal election is a chance to prove that their controversial new polling method can stand up to scrutiny. 

Electrical cords and flashing lights
Intead of employing hundreds of call centre workers, Ekos Research Associates can now conduct their opinion polls electronically through an automated phone system.

Ekos is the first Canadian polling company to use Interactive Voice Response (IVR) or automated polling to track how Canadians intend to vote on Oct. 14.

IVR is a new version of phone polling where, instead of speaking to an interviewer, respondents hear an automated voice asking them to participate in the survey. They respond to the short poll – only five to six questions are asked – using the keypad to indicate their preferences. For example, when asked which party they intend to vote for, respondents might press one for the Conservatives, two for the Liberals, and so on.

Paul Adams, executive director of Ekos, says IVR has allowed the company to reach more people every night than through traditional phone polling.

For its daily election tracking poll, Ekos surveys about 1,000 Canadians every evening, whereas phone polling reaches only about 300 or 400 per night.

Adams says he knows some pollsters are skeptical about the new method, but believes that IVR is as reliable as traditional phone polls, if not more so.

"You can think of all sorts of theoretical objections, that a person won't respond to automated voice," he says. "But the fact is that it's had a very successful run in the United States."

IVR south of the border

Ekos decided to make the switch after seeing how successful the technology was in predicting the outcomes of the U.S. primaries.

Listen to the questions Ekos Research Associates asks using their Interactive Voice Response system. This is only one sample of how the questions sound, says Elliott Gauthier, an Ekos representative. Every time the IVR calls a home, it randomizes the order of the options to avoid affecting the results. [1:56]

SurveyUSA and Rasmussen, the two companies using automated polling in the United States, have a good track record for accuracy and were ranked second and third in their polling during the primaries by Nate Silver of the popular polling website

Charles Franklin, the co-founder of and a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, says there are some drawbacks to IVR.  You can't tell who's answering the phone – a child or an adult – and the surveys must be kept short and simple so that people can respond through the keypad.

But Franklin says that IVR is cheaper than traditional telephone surveys and allows pollsters to respond to breaking news quickly.

"Theoretically, voters might even feel more comfortable reporting a vote to a machine than to a possibly judgmental human," he says in an email. "That might matter more if the campaign involves potentially sensitive topics, as in the case of race in the current U.S. campaign."

This is a recording

But George Bishop, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and author of the polling textbook The Illusion of Public Opinion, is more critical.

'Theoretically, voters might even feel more comfortable reporting a vote to a machine than to a possibly judgmental human.'

Unlike most phone polls where the interviewer can randomize who they speak to, by asking for the person in the household with the latest birthday for example, automated polls are stuck with whoever picks up the phone.

"What if you don't understand the question? There's no opportunity for clarification," he says. "There's also no one there to probe you to answer the question if the person isn't sure."

Other Canadian pollsters aren't ready to jump on the automated bandwagon.

Timothy Woolstencroft, managing partner of The Strategic Counsel, the pollster for the Globe and Mail, says the debate over IVR is part of a broader controversy within the polling industry about the reliability of new technologies, such as online polling.

Child speaking on telephone
Critics of IVR say the automated system has no control over who responds to its polls.

Woolstencroft says his firm, which uses traditional telephone polling for its election surveys, takes its cues from pollsters for other major media organizations, such as NBC, ABC and the New York Times – and it's sticking with what it knows.

"It's interesting and novel, but it's not yet looked at by your peer group as an accepted methodology," he says.

Tim Olafson of Angus-Reid says his company hasn't considered making the switch.

Angus Reid uses online polling for its election coverage and Olafson says he's happy with the results.

Olafson says that from his limited experience with IVR he's found that it can work well, but isn't appropriate for all types of polling.

"I've seen IVR be successful in election campaigns and I've seen it fail. I've seen telephone be successful and fail and I've seen online be successful and fail," he says. "Would we use it in our political polling? No, we wouldn't."

But Adams says he's confident in Ekos' election data so far.

Ekos' numbers have been within the range set by traditional phone polls.

Adams says that as the election nears and as people decide whom they're going to vote for, the polling data from each company tend to tell the same story.

"Let's say we don't converge [with other pollsters], which I would be surprised by but we've never done an election with IVR so I can't be certain," he says. "I guess the proof of who has the better methodology will be who's closer to the actual results."

Related Links

Opens in a new window Ekos Research Associates

Opens in a new window The Strategic Counsel

Opens in a new window Angus Reid Global Monitor

Opens in a new window Rasmussen

Opens in a new window Survey USA


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