What are the legal restrictions on publishing exit polls during elections?

What constitutes an exit poll?

The definition of an exit poll is a survey which asks voters, after they have voted at polling stations, which candidate and/or political party they have voted for. Exit polls are valuable reporting tools as, when carried out accurately and scientifically, the surveys can produce predictions of the eventual outcome of the election.

What is the reasoning behind laws restricting the publication of exit polls?

It has been argued that the publication of such data, or the predictions made subsequently, could affect the election results by influencing those voters still yet to vote. The reasoning, although these conclusions have been disputed, is that the democratic process should not be in any way contaminated. Voters could alter their initial voting intention after hearing that a particular party or candidate has the majority according to exit polls. Fo instance, a voter may switch to vote for a candidate or party that seems to be winning, according to the exit polls. Otherwise, a voter may decide not to vote whatsoever because the candidate or party they would have chosen is not in the lead, according to the exit polls, or that their candidate or party does not seem to need any further votes to win.

There are two broad concerns that can summed up from this outline of the concerns over the publication of exit polls. The law regarding this topic has been put in place to avoid a scenario whereby a later group of voters has been subject to, and potentially influenced by, data that earlier voters will not have considered. Worse still, it is possible for such data and predictions to be either inaccurate or even intentionally false. Either way this indicates a potential contamination of the democratic process of electing Members of Parliament or members of local councils.

What does the law actually state on the publication of exit polls?

The Representation of the People Act 2000 inserted a section 66A into the initial 1983 of the same name and this read as follows. It is a criminal offence ‘to publish, before a poll is closed, any statement about the way in which voters have voted in that election, where this statement is, or might reasonably be taken to be, based on information given by voters after they voted.’

Not only statements and statistics but also making forecasts based on exit polls, constitute an offence. The 2000 Act specifically makes it an offence ‘to publish, before a poll is closed, any forecast – including any estimate – of that election result, if the forecast is based on exit poll information from voters, or which might reasonably be taken to be based on it.

These laws apply to both Parliamentary and local elections, elections to the Welsh Assembly and to by-elections. The 2000 Act applies both to exit polls conducted to focus on voting in a particular constituency or ward and to voting patterns nationally.

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For more information on:

  • What happens if an exit poll, or forecast based on an exit poll, is published before voting closes?
  • What opinion poll data or exit poll data can be published and at what stage in the voting process?
  • What controls do the regulatory codes of broadcasters place on the publication of exit polls?