H.B. 44 would bias polling in Utah and impugn all forms of research

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UPDATED 2-19-13

Legislation that would potentially bias political polling results in Utah and stigmatize all forms of survey, opinion and marketing research has passed the state House, and has gone to the Senate floor.

H.B. 44, sponsored by House Majority Whip Greg Hughes (R), would amend Utah’s election law to require bona fide research studies regarding a political candidate or ballot proposition to disclose who commissioned and paid for the research. The bill passed the House on February 6 and was considered by the Senate Government Operations and Poltical Subdivisions Committee on February 15. It now awaits action on the Senate floor.

H.B. 44 (language as amended):

Definitions - (a) "Poll" means the survey of a person regarding the person's opinion or knowledge of a candidate or ballot proposition, which is conducted in person or by telephone, facsimile, Internet, postal mail, or email.

(b) "Poll" does not include: (i) a ballot; or (ii) an interview of a focus group that is conducted, in person, by one individual, if: (A) the focus group consists of more than three, and less than thirteen, individuals; and (B) all individuals in the focus group are present during the interview.

Election polls – Disclosure required.

(1) A person who conducts a poll shall disclose to the person being surveyed who paid for the poll before or at the conclusion of the poll.

(2) The lieutenant governor shall: (a) impose a $100 fine on a person who fails to make the disclosure required...

The Marketing Research Association (MRA) and American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) are requesting assistance from researchers in Utah for help as we seek to amend or defeat H.B. 44.

The impact of H.B. 44
This legislation presents several problems for both the affected research studies and the broader research profession:

  • Stigmatizing research: Bona fide survey, opinion and marketing research is not advertising or marketing, and does not seek to influence a participant’s attitudes or behavior. The required disclosure of sponsorship would potentially impugn all research studies by making them comparable in the eyes of the public to political advertising and advocacy. This would stigmatize all bona fide research (not just political-related research) and hurt participation in research studies, when we already face extremely low response rates.
  • Biasing research:  Disclosure of who paid for or commissioned a poll can completely distort the answers respondents provide to research questions. Researchers go to great lengths to eliminate bias from all aspects of the research process, from the wording and order of questions to the accent of the interviewers. In most instances, the interviewer or programmer administering the questions is unaware who sponsored the research, or why. The bias that would result from such disclosure would make it extremely difficult to produce scientifically and statistically valid data – an essential tool for any company, organization, or political candidate.
  • Biasing research, even at the end of the survey: While perhaps postponing the sponsorship disclosure until the end of the poll will avoid biasing that specific research interaction, it could potentially bias future ones in the same study. Any research participant informed of who sponsored and commissioned a poll, while the study is still ongoing, could share that information and potentially bias future respondents to the same study. In addition, the sponsor will be known to the interviewers or administrators, potentially injecting bias in how they run the survey and interact with respondents.
  • Limiting research: Message testing is a legitimate survey research function. Message testing is used, targeting a small sample, in order to gauge responses on whether an issue is useful or meaningful in an election. Such messages can be considered positive, negative or plainly neutral. The required disclosures would likely end bona fide message-testing research in Utah.
The real target of H.B. 44: "Push polls"
We understand that the primary motivation behind the support for H.B. 44 is the concern about so-called “push polling,” which is not polling at all. MRA and AAPC have been battling against “push poll” activities for years, seeking to educate consumers, political professionals, and legislators and regulators on the difference between bona fide research, and political persuasion under the guise of research – and the damage that such deceptive activities inflict on bona fide research.
 
MRA and AAPC discussed H.B. 44 with the sponsor and the House leadership, but now we have to turn to the Senate. We have proposed to the Chairman and the members of the Senate Government Operations Committee an alternative approach, modeled after our successful work with Louisiana in the drafting and passage of their "push poll" law back in 2008 that protected bona fide research, including message testing.
 
Any members of the research profession in Utah willing to help should contact MRA's Director of Government Affairs, Howard Fienberg, and review our 1-page position paper on H.B. 44.
 
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