City Hall

New Rules Would Expand Polling Disclosure

By Erica C. Barnett February 8, 2010

Jim Lazar, an economist and open-government advocate in Olympia, has asked the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) to revamp state campaign disclosure rules so that telephone campaign polls would be considered political advertising, among other changes.

Robert Shirley, Lazar's attorney, says Lazar filed the request (technically, a "rulemaking petition") in response to a poll by Olympia City Council member Jeff Kingsbury in 2009. That poll, which opponents characterized as a "push poll," gave voters positive information about Kingsbury and negative information about Buxbaum, and asked whether that information made them more or less likely to vote for each candidate.

However, the changes —which would also require pollsters to identify to callers who paid for a poll, and that political committees that sponsor polls reveal their top five donors—would impact political campaigns and pollsters across the state, including local races in Seattle. For example, Mayor Mike McGinn relied heavily on issue polling during his campaign (he also created voter contact files by compiling lists of people who said they planned to vote for him, which mayoral spokesman Aaron Pickus says does not technically constitute "polling.") That's one reason, as Shirley notes, that "people in the polling business don't like this proposal."

John Wyble, the consultant whose firm, WinPower Strategies, conducted the poll, says the additional disclosure Lazar is proposing could "invalidate the results of the poll, and make research really hard to do." Moreover, he says, polls are typically aimed at getting a sense of public opinion from a representative sample of voters, not influencing the outcome of an election. "If there are 30,000 voters and I'm asking 300 people a question, I'm not going to influence that election," Wyble says.

Staffers at the PDC advised the commission against adopting the rules, arguing that they could discourage people from running for office and that they were redundant with existing laws. However, the commission voted unanimously last month to move forward with the rulemaking process, and will take up the proposed changes at its meeting later this month. Shirley says the commission is waiting until the end of the legislative session before moving forward with the new rules, because the legislature is considering a bill that would expand disclosure requirements for political committees.

* Technically, a push poll is one in which pollsters attempt to "push" a large number of voters toward or against a particular candidate or perspective by providing distorted or false information; push pollsters don't typically collect or analyze the responses. True push polls are very rare.
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