BRASILIA – Brazilian polling companies have been facing threats of a crackdown after their surveys for the election’s first round significantly understated the support for the president and his allies.
President Jair Bolsonaro’s Justice Ministry called for a Federal Police investigation and the antitrust regulator on Thursday launched a probe into whether pollsters formed a cartel to manipulate election results. Allies in Congress are pushing separate initiatives, one of which would establish prison sentences for polls failing to accurately predict results.
Multiple analysts consulted by The Associated Press – even those who said polls have room to improve – slammed these efforts.
“The main goal is not to improve electoral polls, but to persecute and punish institutes,” said Alberto Almeida, who leads political research institute Brasilis. “There were mistakes, but voting on a bill, doing a congressional investigation — that is an embarrassment. Wanting to criminalize is senseless.”
Before the Oct. 2 vote, many polls had indicated that Bolsonaro was far behind. Some suggested leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva could even clinch a first-round victory. Most showed a margin that neared or exceeded double digits.
Instead, Bolsonaro came within five points of da Silva and the two will compete in an Oct. 30 runoff. Bolsonaro's right-wing allies in congressional and gubernatorial races also did better than polls indicated.
Throughout the campaign, Bolsonaro and his backers had scoffed at pollsters’ findings, pointing instead to the president’s packed rallies. Those, they said, represented his true support.
After the vote, they seized on results as proof. And a flurry of attacks followed.
Justice Minister Anderson Torres requested the Federal Police to investigate polling institutes, writing on Oct. 4 that their conduct appeared to indicate criminal practice, though he didn't specify what law they might have broken. Police launched their probe on Thursday, as did the federal antitrust regulator — only to have Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who also oversees the electoral court, block both investigations that evening.
“These investigations seem to demonstrate the intention to satisfy (Bolsonaro’s) electoral will,” de Moraes wrote in his decision.
A pro-government senator requested the Senate to investigate which institutes operate “outside tolerable margins.”
And Bolsonaro’s whip in the lower house presented a bill to criminalize polls conducted within 15 days of elections whose findings differ significantly from results.
The proposal to punish off-base polls goes far beyond previous efforts in Brazil’s Congress to just ban polls in the immediate lead-up to elections so they cannot influence voters’ choices. One such bill passed in the lower house last year, but wasn't taken up by the Senate.
Such blackout periods are common across the world. Polls cannot be published within 15 days of Chilean and Italian elections, eight days for Argentine races, five for Spain and three for Mexico.
By contrast, it is legal to publish polls in Greece and the U.K. until the day before the vote. There are no restrictions in the U.S., though most media organizations that sponsor polls on election day — including the AP — voluntarily wait to publish information that could preview the outcome in each state until polls have closed.
Current Brazilian law prohibits publication of a fraudulent poll, but doesn’t clarify how to establish fraud has occurred, leaving room for interpretation, said constitutional law expert Vera Chemin, so the nation should discuss reforming that legislation.
“But this needs to be done calmly and impartially, which isn’t the case right now,” she said, adding that the proposal to punish pollsters is “too extreme.”
Under its terms, poll directors and coordinators as well as clients who commission an errant poll could be sentenced to between four and 10 years prison and fined.
The bill's sponsor, lower house whip Ricardo Barros, indicated in an interview that he faces resistance from other lawmakers, but described the measure as an alternative to a pre-election poll ban — an approach previously ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
“I would rather prohibit polls, but since we can’t do the same as other countries, pollsters need adequate techniques so results converge with what we see in the vote,” he said.
Brazil’s association of polling institutions expressed “indignation” at efforts to take legal action against them. It said the country's polls are “diagnoses, not projections” and follow international standards.
Eduardo Grin, a political analyst at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university and think tank in Sao Paulo, criticized the fact Barros’ bill doesn’t establish willful misconduct as necessary for punishment, and said it reflects Bolsonaro's attempt to test public opinion for measures that limit society's access to information.
Hardly a day goes by during campaign season without results from a fresh poll. This year's first round had a whopping 975 polls regarding presidential candidates, up 92% from 2018, according to Daniel Marcelino, a data researcher for news site Jota who counted the polls registered with the electoral authority.
It isn’t clear why so many polls missed the mark on Bolsonaro's support. Analysts have said that respondents who said they favored also-rans in the multi-candidate race appeared to migrate to Bolsonaro at the last minute. Some suggested that so-called “shy voters” had been embarrassed to disclose support for Bolsonaro. Others said outdated census data had hurt survey design.
Adriano Oliveira, director at Intelligence Scenario, a pollster based in Pernambuco state, said many polls frame questions in a way that skews results. He said they should first ask whether respondents have selected a candidate to avoid pressuring for an answer not indicative of their eventual vote. He also said results are often presented and reported by media as though vote intention isn't subject to change.
Nevertheless, he said, “This crusade against research institutes is absurd. After all it is a company, it functions within the free market. ... People define which institute has the most credibility.”