Polls don’t necessarily tell us what all Utahns are thinking

By Dr. Ronald Mortensen/Columnist at UtahStandardNews.com/Sep 19, 2019

According to Utah Political Trends which conducts polls for UtahPolicy.com, their surveys “are administered to a sample of active registered voters in Utah taken from the publicly available registered Voter File.…Our panelists receive an email invitation and two reminders to participate in the survey from Y2 Analytics….The average response rate for the Utah Political Trends Panel was 2.2%  (italics and underlining added).”

It is important to note that Utah Political Trends’ methodology excludes roughly half of all Utahns from their surveys for the following reasons.

1. Only active registered voters are surveyed.  It is estimated that, on the high side, roughly 75% of eligible voters are registered to vote and only 66% of these eligible voters are active voters, therefore, 34% of all eligible voters are excluded from the survey pool.  Further compounding this problem is the fact roughly 12% of Utah registered voters have designated their records as private; therefore these registered voters are not included in the survey pool.  When combined with unregistered and inactive voters, this means that Utah Political Trends’ survey panels are missing roughly half of all Utahns of voting age.

According to the Utah Elections Office, in September 2019 there were 1,654,775 total registered voters (1,443,683 active voters and 211,092 inactive voters).  According to the United States Department of Commerce, in 2017 there were 2,175,134 Utahs of voting age. 

2. Utah Political Trends conducts its polls by email.  It uses a third party vendor to obtain e-mail addresses for active voters since, in Utah, a registered voter’s e-mail is a protected record not subject to public disclosure.  Because not all e-mails are readily available, this further reduces the number of individuals in the pollster’s survey pool.  When individuals without email addresses are added to non-registered voters, inactive voters and voters who have made their voter registrations private, less than half of Utahns are eligible to be included in a Utah Political Trends survey.

So headlines such as Utahns divided over including a citizenship question on the 2020 census or Our new poll shows Utahns oppose raising the gas tax or implementing tolls or Poll: Utahns split over which party in Congress they trust to deal with gun issues are not telling the full story.  What these polls are actually telling us is what a small number of active Utah voters think.  Of course, a small sample of highly politically engaged active voters may not necessarily be representative of individuals who are not registered to vote, who are inactive voters, who have made their voter registrations private and whose e-mails cannot be found by Utah Political Trends’ third party vendor.

If these headlines were to be more accurate, they would read Active Utah voters divided over including a citizenship question on the 2020 census or Our new poll shows that active Utah voters oppose raising the gas tax or implementing tolls or Poll: Active Utah voters split over which party in Congress they trust to deal with gun issues.” 

When asked to comment on this piece, Bryan Schott of UtahPolicy.com responded:  “Please refer to us as UtahPolicy.com.  Your article does not present a good faith argument and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of polling.  We decline any further comment.”

However, Scott Riding, managing partner of Y2 Analytics, told the Salt Lake Tribune “I suspect that younger people, new move-ins or people who are interacting with the driver’s license bureau more frequently (all of whom update voting records more often) are opting out at higher rates. When you have that kind of systematic bias, it can create bias in the list that hurts poll accuracy.”

Based on the difficulty that comes from the low response rates that impact even the best polls, an increasing number of private voter records, the fact that Americans are screening out pollsters and sometimes poorly constructed issues questions, Utah’s political and public policy establishment would do well to take poll results and the reporting on them with a huge grain of salt.  After all, there may be more fiction that fact in them.