While the majority of European countries, notably the United Kingdom, rely on exit polls to declare election winners, in France, pollsters base their estimates on ballots actually counted. Explanations.
Sunday April 24, as is customary, the face of the winner of the presidential election – Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen – will appear live on television at 8 p.m. sharp.
However, in the big cities, the polling stations will have just closed their doors.
So how do the pollsters manage to give a winner at 8 p.m., when all the votes have not yet been counted?
Unlike the operation of most other European countries, the results communicated at 8 p.m. are not exit polls.
French pollsters base their estimates on the first ballots that have indeed been counted.
To do this, everything is played during the hour preceding the announcement of the result.
In mainland France, polling stations close at 7 p.m. in most municipalities and at 8 p.m. in major cities, particularly Paris and Marseille.
It is thanks to this one-hour delay – which was two hours in previous elections – that the pollsters can designate a winner.
“They use interviews, we use ballots”
“The main difference with an exit poll is that instead of asking people outside the polling station how they voted, we look directly at their ballot papers,” says Mathieu Doiret of the polling institute Ipsos, partner of France 24 for the presidential election.
“This forces us to wait for the first polls to close at 7 p.m., while exit polls can be worked on throughout the day.”
Ipsos, like other polling institutes, sends pollsters, around 500, to various polling stations, chosen so that they are representative of the country’s diversity.
According to Mathieu Doiret, the idea is not so much to find areas where voting habits reflect the rest of the country, but rather to have polling stations that can reveal trends.
This may consist, for example, of seeing whether, in the strongholds of a candidate, there are large numbers of people moving or not.
Once there, the investigators call the polling institute every hundred ballots counted to communicate the results.
A software takes care of centralizing all the data, and, by comparing them with the figures of the previous elections, develops projections.
At the start of election night, the polling institutes can thus give initial estimates which will be updated over the hours, as the counting of the ballots progresses.
“British pollsters, for example, also choose a representative sample of polling stations and compare the results with past elections in order to establish their projections”, compares Mathieu Doiret, whose institute also carries out surveys in the United Kingdom.
“The only difference is in the primary material: they use interviews, we use ballots.”
For the specialist, relying on the actual count of the votes rather than on exit polls has certain advantages.
In the British case, voters are, for example, free not to want to tell the pollsters which ballot they put in the ballot box.
A risk of error?
So far, this system has proven itself.
In each election, the pollsters were able to give a result at 8 p.m., including the first round of the presidential election in 2002, despite the tiny difference which had allowed the far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to ahead of the socialist Lionel Jospin.
“We have not yet seen polling institutes unable to declare a winner, or the finalists of the second round, at 8 p.m.”, assures Mathieu Doiret.
“There was only one time there was some confusion, in 1974.”
That year, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing won with only 400,000 votes ahead of his opponent, the narrowest gap ever recorded.
“But with today’s expertise and technical capabilities, we wouldn’t even have had such difficulties,” says the specialist.
However, a surprise cannot be completely ruled out.
This is what some voters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon hoped for in the first round on April 10.
At 8 p.m., the rebellious candidate was credited with 20%.
He finally finished, according to the official count of the Ministry of the Interior with 21.95% of the total votes cast.
“Things get complicated when the candidates do much better in a ballot than in previous elections in a certain type of constituency,” explains Mathieu Doiret.
“In the case of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, his support in rural areas was largely unchanged from 2017, but he jumped in some urban areas, where polling stations closed later. So we couldn’t tell. until after 8 p.m. when these offices began reporting their results.”
The temptation to trust foreign media
If the media will wait for the closing of the polls to communicate the first estimates on Sunday, on social networks, anonymous but also Belgian or Swiss media will publish estimates through the hashtag #RadioLondres from the end of the afternoon, based on exit polls, precisely, or on old polls.
While it may be tempting to refer to them, these results are often unreliable.
Proof of this is two weeks ago, during the first round of voting, when rumors spoke of a tie between Macron and Le Pen – it turned out later that the incumbent president had a four-point lead.
And these results are also contrary to French law.
From Friday at 11:59 p.m. until Sunday at 8 p.m., France is in a period of “electoral silence”.
The French media are therefore prohibited from quoting candidates or publishing opinion polls so as not to influence voters.
These rules also apply to candidates and their teams, who do not have the right to campaign within 44 hours before the end of the poll.
In a press release published on April 4, the National Commission for the Control of the Electoral Campaign for the Presidential Election, the CNCCEP and the Polling Commission thus recalled that the publication of results or polls or their dissemination, including on social networks, is liable to a fine of up to 75,000 euros.
This article was translated from English by Cyrielle Cabot.