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Oh, To Be Selected A Random Voter!

By John Gould / November 2, 1990



DURING the political campaign, people seemed not to get excited over the weasel talk about ``selected random voters.'' This is a pity, since the selection of random voters tells us more about what is going on than the results of a nationwide poll ever do. How do you select something at random? These polls, which are now the accepted basis of every election prognostication, begin with the selection of people at random. If you get to be queried, it means you were selected. It doesn't matter how - by cranking machine, by a jury of impartial monkeys, by computer analysis - your name came up and somebody's name didn't. At random?

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Years ago, our town was a ``test area'' for one of the big national samplings of public opinion. Every so often we would be invaded with pollsters showing badges on their lapels and with clipboards ready to shove into the doors that opened to them. Townspeople found it amusing to be thus sampled, and for the most part contributed pleasantly.

It wasn't everybody that got asked, because the random selecting was carefully done on the basis of which way the consensus was meant to swing. A poll has to know, before it starts, which way it is to be unbiased. About two weeks after the pollsters had visited our town, there would be a big to-do in the papers about the results of this great national survey and how it proved the people of the United States would do thus and so at the polls. Even then, the stories mentioned the ``selected random'' sampling, and even then nobody paused to consider what that meant.

Henry Reid was our town's only dentist then, and he was always selected at random. At first, he wasn't too happy about this, since the pollster always came while Harry was in some patient's mouth with hoseline and plow, and Harry didn't have an assistant to fend for him. His office was in his home, and by the doorbell at the front door was a sign that said, ``Ring And Walk In - Waiting Room To Left.''

Patients would let themselves in, but the pollsters never did. Harry would let the bell ring a few times, and then he would disengage himself from the immediate molar and go to the door. He would see the badge on the pollster's lapel and he would say, ``Good morning.''

``Dr. Reid?'' the pollster would ask, knowing full well on the grounds of random selection that he was, indeed, Dr. Reid.

``Yes.''

Then the pollster would go right down his sheet of paper, checking each question yes or no without asking Harry a thing. After he checked off his list, he would say thank you and go away.

After this happened several times, Harry tumbled and understood. He had been selected at random because he was the chairman of the Republican Town Committee. He had held that position for a good many years and never took patients during State Convention. So when the pollsters were getting ready to canvass our town, they would select at random the right people to supply the answers they wanted, and then they would include a few of the opposite stripe to give some validity. After all, why take a poll if the public is unanimous? So the pollster always knew just how Dr. Reid would respond, without asking a thing.

The pollsters, even then, liked their liberal results. They could count on some conservative answers from a professional man who was chairman of the Republican Town Committee. Our particular town, in those times, always showed a strong liberal tendency, with a smattering of Harry Reid's dissenting leanings.

My knowledge of selected random voters was come by honestly. When I was in school and college I was a ``stringer'' for one of our Maine daily papers, and there came a referendum which the publisher opposed. Every day his editorial preached no, and his editors were told to pay attention in the news section.

In turn, I got the word, and I was told to select at random certain prominent citizens who were opposed to the referendum, get 50-word statements from each, and send pictures. All the stringers got the same message. Shortly the paper began printing unbiased and unsolicited reports from all parts of the state, and as I was then impoverished, as well as undisciplined in journalistic probity, I saw the point and was able to find a great many unbiased citizens to select at random.

It seemed to me I was laboring in a good cause, and I developed a staunch admiration for the integrity of the media and the power of the press. If selected at random to be surveyed, I would chuckle as Harry Reid chuckled.