Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Tuesday, February 10

Revisiting the post on Kenya's vote

Last week I wrote about a controversy, highlighted by the New York Times, wherein IRI, an American democracy-promotion organization, is accused of concealing the results of an exit poll conducted during Kenya's 2007 presidential election. The poll showed Raila Odinga ahead of Mwai Kibaki, the ultimate winner, by a substantial margin—evidence, perhaps, that the vote was flawed.


I just wanted to revisit the subject for a moment to note a couple comments we received on that post—in particular, from Clark Gibson, one of the architects of the suppressed study, mentioned in the original Times article.

Prof. Gibson makes a couple very important points. Foremost, he offers some good evidence to counter the claim by IRI that there were legitimate reasons at the time to question the validity of the poll. He writes:
I believe our exit poll was, outside of perhaps South Africa, the most rigorous ever staged on the continent. The actual results of the exit poll were Odinga 46.07%, Kibaki 40.17%, Kalonzo 10.22%. The margin of error was 1.32. Since IRI’s original reviewer did not review the actual 5,495 surveys, his comments are barely relevant; we had technical responses to all of them, and none imperil the results. We also have no idea how IRI came up with the "2% off" figure. They did not have any discussions with us during any of their "reviews." I doubt the accuracy of their reviews because of this, as they would need guidance about many features of the poll. They have not made public any of the methods they used in their reviews. We are happy to provide our procedures and methods to anyone. We are scientists, not activists.
In response, another commenter, called "Jackie IRI"—who I can only assume is from IRI—wrote:
Wilson Strategies, at the request of IRI, did in fact review more than 6,000 questionnaires through the re-entry of the data. After the data was re-entered it showed a 6 point spread between Odinga and Kibaki (46.8 – 40.7%) as opposed to the original 8 point spread (48.5 – 40.9%) reported on January 31, 2008.
First of all, I just want to say how much we appreciate both Prof. Gibson's and Jackie's comments—this kind of debate is exactly what Africa Matters was made for.

That said, and a few other commenters have implied they may feel the same, I have trouble seeing the logic of this counter-argument. First, as Prof. Gibson notes, it's unclear where the apparently original, eight-point-spread figures come from, which Jackie alludes to and IRI has referenced elsewhere; the figures he cites (46.07% – 40.17%) are within a percentage point of both the "correct" figures cited by Jackie (46.8% – 40.7%) and those reported on the official version of the poll released by IRI (46.4% – 40.3%). Second, Jackie notes, contrary to Prof. Gibson's claim, that the reviewer did in fact look at "more than 6,000 questionnaires"—Prof. Gibson wrote, though, that there were only 5,495 total surveys; the poll report confirms that, overall, only 5,503 interviews were conducted. Something doesn't add up.

Michael Goldfarb, of the Weekly Standard, wrote an article in defense of IRI, the gist of which is that the Times is pursuing a vendetta against the organization. IRI, likewise, has posted two versions of a letter to the editor on its site (sent and printed), written by IRI director Lorne Craner, claiming that even here, the Times removed factual information from the published version, presumably in pursuit of its agenda.

But all of this seems besides the point. Fair or not, the Times's coverage poses a question that IRI has yet to satisfactorily answer—why was the poll swept under the rug?

To me, this issue isn't even necessarily troublesome just because of the prospect of the U.S. meddling in foreign elections. More so, I find the very idea that stability counts more than democracy to be worrisome. In some ways, it doesn't even matter whether IRI had benign motivations or not—even if one accepts their explanation at face value, it still strikes me as misguided. IRI has claimed that it pulled the poll because of questions about its accuracy—"the first bad poll we put out is the last we put out," Craner says. I understand the drive for total accuracy, of course, but do pollsters during American elections show anything near this kind of caution? As Prof. Gibson notes in his comment, this is just a poll—it's not an actual vote count. When independent polls get covered up, simply in the name of not rocking the boat, free elections are in trouble.

No one ever said democracy was smooth sailing—authoritarianism is always going to win on that count. But there are more important things at stake, in my view. Let's stop playing the stability trump card in Africa.

1 comments:

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