Chandra Bozelko: Dropping a political dipstick into prisons is worthwhile
If you’ve gnawed your nails this week as poll numbers on various Democratic candidates shifted, I’m with you. I’m addicted to these ubiquitous - and often useless - bulletins.
I’ve been polled twice in my life by phone. I was shocked at how long it took - over 12 minutes. Some pollster pegged me as a likely voter, which means they either didn’t know about my criminal record or didn’t care because the polling company saw no value in it as a data point.
But it was valuable. I’m part of 70 million people with a criminal record, and about 65 million of us can cast ballots. We’re not a monolith, but our opinions on certain topics can be quite consistent. And that commonality is what candidates capitalize on when choosing their policy positions.
Knowing the attitudes of vote-ready people with felony convictions is key for candidates. That’s why a question about past involvement with the criminal justice system should be added to all polls.
It’s not just the polling ahead of political contests that omits these essential data points. No one has ever asked me anything as I exited the voting precinct. The only reason I know about exit polls is that I hear about them on election days. I rely on them when they’re reported, but I’ve never witnessed one.
I always figured exit polls would be much shorter than the telephone poll. Asking more questions in an exit poll would stretch the interview to the point that people would just walk away. A good exit poll, I assumed, was swift and pointed. “Who did you vote for? Thanks. Now take off with your coveted ‘I voted’ sticker,” I imagined they said.
My assessment about the brevity of exit polls was way off. I looked at CNN’s exit polls from 2018. They vet retreating voters like they’re candidates themselves and subject them to 37 questions. That year, they inquired about voters’ feelings on everything from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to gun ownership and pre-existing health conditions.
But there wasn’t any question about having been arrested or convicted.
By comparison, the United States Census - its data dictates much of federal policy - has only seven questions. It doesn’t ask about contact with law enforcement either, but the census is like a prison headcount - it’s just the government checking to see who’s present and alive.
CNN’s exit poll is more than five times the length of the mighty census - and people still engage with them, just like I did with the telephone pollster even though several times during the call I wanted to hang up. I guess people think once they’re past 3 minutes or so, they might as well throw away twice as much time. That’s what I did, and I doubt I’m alone.
My point is that if people are investing a fifth or a quarter of an hour to register their opinions, another 15 seconds of questions about a criminal background won’t blow the interview to bits. Collecting this data is doable.
I’m not the only one who sees the potential in mining this data. The Marshall Project and Slate Magazine have been surveying thousands of incarcerated people about their political opinions, and the results should be out before Super Tuesday, March 3. Most people in prison can’t vote - only Maine and Vermont allow that - but two major publications believed that dropping a political dipstick into a prison was a worthwhile venture.
I can only think that sampling people who were in prison but have since discharged and can vote now would be more even more valuable than polling prisoners.
Of course, data about the political preferences of formerly incarcerated people only holds weight if they turn out on Election Day, and it’s not clear that they do in large numbers.
But that’s exactly why this statistic needs to be included in all polling, especially exit polling. We need to know what these people think and how often they show up. If 50% of this population votes and supports a certain candidate, that candidate - and his opponents - should know about it.
Pollsters should amend their sets of poll questions to include this crucial data point.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.