Thoughts on Growing Cell Phone Use, Polls, and Election Integrity

Will the growth in households with no landlines and only a cell phone begin to skew poll results in the near future? Some pollsters are concerned:

With more American households giving up their old-fashioned land lines and using cellphones for all calls, public opinion researchers are facing a challenge of how to make sure they are getting representative samples when conducting polls.

Since the 1970s, pollsters have relied on sampling techniques that depend on talking with people on their home land line telephones. For the most part, the polls sample the public by randomly dialing telephone numbers in every region from a list of area codes and exchanges known to be residences. The sample is weighted to the results of the latest census.

But cellphones are not geographically based, forcing pollsters to adjust their methods. In addition, a land line often represents a household and a cellphone often represents an individual.

Pollsters say they are also concerned about low response rates among people reached on cellphones. Because wireless carriers charge customers by the minute, people may be less likely to agree to complete lengthy cellphone surveys.

The survey industry is exploring reimbursing respondents for minutes used.

Who are these adults with cellphones only?

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey, adults with cellphones and no land lines are more likely to be young — half of exclusively wireless users are younger than 30 — male, Hispanic, living in poverty, renting a residence and living in metropolitan regions.

The Pew Research Center conducted four studies last year on the differences between cellphone and land line respondents. The studies said the differences were not significant enough to influence surveys properly weighted to census data. With the increase in cellphone-only households, that may not be the case next year. Researchers, including the New York Times/CBS News poll will test that by incorporating cellphones in samples.

“If the percentage of adults living in cell-only households continues to grow at the rate it has been growing for the past four years, I have projected that it will exceed 25 percent by the end of 2008,” Stephen J. Blumberg, a senior scientist at the National Center for Health Statistics, wrote in an e-mail message.

More here about the cell phone challenge as it applies to survey research.

The difficulties in cell phone polling will only add to the challenges pollsters face. It will also present plenty of opportunities for error and abuse in determining sampling methods and weighting criteria. The bottom line is that, during this transition period, telephone polls will be even more error-prone than ever.

The only poll that counts is the poll on election day — which is why avoiding election fraud of all kinds is of critical importance. The fact that polling results may be even more error-prone than usual means that election fraud may also be more difficult to detect.

Handing out driver’s licenses to non-citizens, failing to require photo identification from voters (or prohibiting such requests for proof of identity), allowing liberal use of absentee ballots, and using unreliable vote counting systems without verifiable paper trails all create prime opportunities for abuse.

We need extreme vigilance to maintain the integrity of our elections. If that integrity is undermined, there is precious little left of our democracy.

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