Interestingly, Mitofsky points out that Jimmy Carter has opposed independent exit polls in countries where he has observed elections. In 1994, Mitofsky says, he persuaded South Africa's election authorities from allowing exit polls. As a result, there was considerable confusion and skepticism in the course of the five-day election process. Nevertheless, the chief South African election official tried to persuade Mexico not to allow exit polls. Salinas, fortunately, showed better judgment.
Browse through an archive of columns by Michael Barone.
In Venezuela, Schoen's firm was hired by businessmen who were almost surely opponents of Chavez. The Chavez regime intimidated local interviewing firms, who refused to provide interviewers for Penn Schoen at the polls. As a result, the firm trained volunteers. Critics of the firm might argue that these volunteers, undoubtedly mostly anti-Chavez, may have tried to present a false result.
But that would in fact be difficult to do. Mitofsky points out that in countries emerging from autocracy into democracy, about 90 percent of voters approached by exit pollsters agree to participate. That is almost double the rate in the United States. Moreover, exit pollers work in teams; there would have to be massive collusion for them to produce fraudulent results. The Penn Schoen exit poll was conducted at about 200 polling places and produced more than 20,000 responses. Changing those results from something like 42-58 (the Chavez announced figure) to 59-41 would be quite a feat. The firm employed supervisors to make sure the polling was done right. And its results by precinct can be checked against the official results reported for that precinct.
In contrast, it would be far easier, given the touch-screen voting method and central tabulation used in Venezuela, for the central counting center to falsify the results. All you would have to do is program the computer to count every sixth "yes" vote as a "no." That would transform a 59-41 vote to 42-58. And the results would still show pro-Chavez areas voting for him and anti-Chavez areas going the other wayjust by different margins.
Jimmy Carter did not remain in Venezuela long after the polling and, after a superficial look at the central counting center, pronounced the election fair and the result accurate. He could not have determined whether the counting computer was misprogrammed. Chavez had every motive for cheating: polls before the election mostly showed him under 50 percent, and he should have reasonably concluded that those not for him were against. Adjusting the count was one sure way to win.
By way of comparison, Penn Schoen has no motive whatever for cheating. It is a reputable American firm in a competitive business. Over more than 20 years it has worked for successful American politicians like Bill Clinton in 1996, Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2001, Michael Bloomberg in 2001 and many others. I have had experience, as a political consultant and a political writer, dealing with Penn Schoen during that whole time, and have found the firm to be reliable and fully observant of professional standards. They are high on my list of Democratic, Republican and independent polling firms whose numbers I trust and whose professional integrity I respect. Penn and Schoen are not likely to squander a hard-won good reputation to please a client in a foreign country where they are not likely to work again any time soon.