Mar 092012

As any fan of Midsomer Murders can testify, the English countryside is a beautiful but terrifying place. But this post on the EPOP mailing list is not about mad members of the gentry, vicious vicars or fornicating farmers, but about a potential Parish Putin:

The case concerns a Parish Poll conducted in the Devon Town of Buckfastleigh
last week, but raises issues that could become important in future elections
at every single level.

The Parish Poll was called by residents of Buckfastleigh who are very
concerned about plans to cite an industrial waste processing facility in the

In the run up to the poll, the local paper, the Mid-Devon Advertiser, ran an
online poll (which is obviously open to anyone regardless of
location) in which 728 (60.2%) votes were recorded in favour of the plans,
with 474 (39.2%) voting against. The online poll appeared to allow multiple
voting – I voted more than once from the same computer and we had an IT
expert look into the matter who said that it was relatively easy to do
multiple voting even where each vote supposedly should come from a unique IP
address. A simple re-boot of a router would allow this.

The actual result of the official Parish Poll was 95% against the plans on a
turnout of 49.76% (which is apparently very high for a Parish Poll).

I was part of the campaign against the plans and it is my view, as well as
that of quite a few others, that the online poll was rigged by the planning
applicant as it seems quite extraordinary that the two results could be so

That raises a number of interesting questions. First, if this online poll was a random sample with n ~1200, what are the odds of being almost 60 percentage points off? Zilch. So, either the supporters were much more likely to vote in the online poll than to turn out in the actual Parish Poll, or the applicant has indeed rigged the online poll. But why would they do that? Three mechanisms spring to mind:

  • Bandwagon effects. But seriously, would you vote in favour of waste processing plant because the yeas have a 10 point lead, and you want to be with the winners? Would you believe that anyone does?
  • Tactical voting. A more credible motive in principle, but that would require more than two options on the ballot.
  • Paradox of voting. We all know that no one should vote anyway, but if you believe that the other side is going to win, your probability of abstention might go up even further. If the poll was rigged, that would seem to be the most plausible rationale behind such a plot.

Apparently, it did not work in Devon. But the more general question is: Can we trust those non-scientific polls, and what is their effect on voters? I think the answers are “No”, and “We don’t know”. But what is your take on the Devon incident?

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