Simple question, complex answer.
The Caucasus Research Resources Center, with whom I met on my recent trip to Georgia, starts to get to the heart of the matter in this very good post on how to evaluate pre-election polls. To boil Hans’ argument down, the burden on is on the pollster to publicly disclose as much information about the data collection process as possible. Of course, the media has to also report the results responsibly, which is almost as big a hurdle in these countries as disclosing basic information about sample sizes, margin of error, interviewing techniques and, most importantly, funders.
This sort of disclosure is necessary anywhere, whether it’s Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia (Onnik at the Armenia Election Monitor has been posting on this topic quite a bit lately) or even Iowa. That’s why Pollster.com has been a strong proponent of The Disclosure Project, which pressures U.S. pollsters to reveal more about their methodology. This is even more important in countries where pre-election opinion polls are relatively new and neither the media nor voters are very sophisticated poll consumers.
Conducting methodologically sound polling in a highly politicized environment like Georgia or Azerbajian is difficult, but not impossible (and I do put Georgia and Azerbaijan in the same category in that regard– I was shocked at how polarized the pre-election environment is in Tbilisi. The pre-election atmosphere in Georgia has much more in common with Azerbaijan’s prior to the 2005 election than it does with Ukraine’s 2006 or 2007 pre-election period, which is depressing). Just like in campaign finance, disclosure is the the first and most important step to increasing public confidence in the process.
People need to understand that polling is neither good nor bad. It’s simply a tool that can be put to both legitimate and nefarious purposes. Polls are fundamentally democratic because they give ordinary people a voice, but disclosure helps an informed citizenry assess whether their voices are truly being heard or are being manipulated.