(Alison Roach – The Peak: Student Newspaper of Simon Fraser University)
After the 2013 BC provincial election ended with a surprising Liberal victory, many are looking for something to blame the shock on, and landing on the polls.
Heading into campaigning, the BC Liberals were trailing the BC NDP by a significant 20 per cent, according to the Angus Reid poll, an online poll of 809 BC adults that found 48 per cent of decided voters were confirmed or leading towards supporting the NDP.
However, in reality the BC Liberals — headed by Christy Clark — won a majority government on May 14, winning 44.4 per cent of the popular vote and 50 of the province’s 85 riding, in what CBC News called “one of the most remarkable political comebacks in the province’s history.”
The vast difference between the advanced polling predictions and the results have some pointing fingers at the polls themselves. Angus Reid himself — author of the popular Angus Reid poll and poller for CTV and The Globe and Mail — failed to predict the election results, but doesn’t believe the polls were wrong. His final poll on that Monday had the Liberals still trailing the NDP by nine per cent.
According to The Globe and Mail, Reid thinks the polls simply missed the late Liberal surge, but did say, “I think there’s going to be a healthy skepticism for a while about polling. I don’t think the industry can completely dodge this one as it looks at trying to establish credibility going forward.”
Dr. Joti Samra, a clinical psychologist and adjunct psychology professor at SFU, says the disparity in the polls may have misled the voters themselves, and the message they were receiving in the days and weeks leading up to election day. Samra believes a phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility may have discouraged voters from making it out on election day.
“When we’re place in situations where there’s others involved and we perceive that others will be taking some kind of action toward an outcome, we tend to be less likely to adopt individual kinds of responsibility,” Samra said in an interview with The Peak; “Our sense of individual responsibility goes down as the size of the group goes up.”
Samra suspects that as the public was bombarded with the message of an imminent NDP win, many individuals perceived that their vote would not sway the election away from that outcome.
“People tend to be more likely to take inaction, not necessarily because they’re apathetic about it, or they’re indifferent about it, but because they think that there’s not going to be an impact of their particular behaviour,” Samra explained. She went on to say that if the reports from the polls showed a closer election, the end result may have been different.
According to Samra, the way to mitigate the effect of diffusion of responsibility would be to qualify the messages that we hear in the media leading up to an election.
She concluded, “What needs to be underscored is that it’s a sample, it’s a prediction, and by definition that prediction is not perfect. It has the potential to be skewed by a number of factors, and we really have a real life example of that now.”