Not just exit polls: Why French election projections are almost always correct


While most countries rely on exit polls to declare election winners, at the risk of jumping the gun, pollsters in France base their estimates on actual ballots – a system made possible by the closure of polling stations across the country.

French voters will vote on Sunday to rematch Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen in a 2017 duel to elect their next president. Estimates and preliminary results will not be known until after the last polling station closes at 8 pm. But in what has become a familiar ritual, social media networks will begin claiming to predict the outcome of the election with rumors of Belgian or Swiss elections hours earlier.

Such elections are strictly prohibited not only in France. They are often wrong too. Two weeks earlier, during the first round of voting, when rumors spoke of a tie between Macron and Le Pen (it was later revealed that the incumbent was four points ahead).

French presidential election © France 24

At midnight on Friday, France enters a period of “election silence”, during which French media are barred from quoting candidates or publishing opinion polls to ensure they do not influence voters. These rules also apply to candidates and their teams, who are strictly prohibited from campaigning in the last 44 hours before voting ends on Sunday.

On election day, polling stations in mainland France close at 7 p.m. in most places and 8 p.m. in major cities, including Paris. That one-hour gap, which used to be two hours in previous elections, is crucial for voters who are expected to crunch the numbers and project the winner in the 8 p.m. time frame.

Unlike most other democracies, where those estimates are based on exit polls, French pollsters base their estimates on ballots that have actually been counted. Those estimates are updated throughout the evening as the vote count progresses.

‘They use interviews, we use ballots’

“The main difference with exit polls is that instead of asking people outside the polling station how they voted, we directly look at their ballots,” says Mathieu Doiret of the Ipsos polling institute, France 24 for the presidential election. companions of “This means we will have to wait for the polling stations to close at 7 pm first, while the exit polls can work for the whole day.”

A voter stands with his dog in a polling station during the first round of the French election in Henin-Beaumont in northern France on April 22, 2012.
A voter stands with his dog in a polling station during the first round of the French election in Henin-Beaumont in northern France on April 22, 2012. © AP Photo / Jacques Brinon

Like other pollsters, Ipsos relies on feedback from hundreds of polling stations spread across France. The sample is chosen to ensure that it is representative of the diversity of French constituencies, matching the overall result of the previous presidential election, which is used as a benchmark.

The idea is not to find areas where voting patterns mirror the rest of the country, but rather polling stations that are indicative of trends – for example, to see if a given candidate has a large number of strongholds. Go out or swing one way or another – and then come up with the widest possible picture.

“British pollsters also take a representative sample of polling stations and compare them to results from past elections to establish their estimates,” says Doiret, whose institute also conducts surveys in the UK. “The only difference is the primary content: They use interviews, we use ballots.”

Relying on the actual vote count rather than the interview offers some advantages, says Douret, noting that voters may not want to tell interviewees which vote they cast.

“We also use exit polls in France, for example by age group or profession, to evaluate the level of support for each candidate,” he says. “But exit polls are a little less accurate, because people can refuse to answer our questions while they can’t refuse to count their ballots.”

100% record

France has used the same voting system for generations, requiring voters to cast paper ballots in person or by proxy and then count them by hand. In polling stations sampled by Ipsos and its peers, an official calls the pollsters after every 100 ballots are counted to report the results. Using specialized software, the data is compared to data from past elections to detailed estimates.

A voter casts his vote at a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France.
A voter casts his vote at a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France. © Christian Hartmann, AFP

The system has allowed pollsters to predict the outcome of all recent elections – including the wafer-thin margin that saw far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Lionel of the Socialists, in a shocking first round result in 2002. Jospin was allowed out.

>> On This Day in 2002: Doomed Socialist Favorites Laugh at Le Pen’s Presidency Final Dangerously

“We have yet to see the pollsters unable to declare the winners or second-round finalists at 8 p.m.,” says Doiret. “Only Once Was There Some Confusion, 1974″ [Valéry Giscard d’Estaing won that race by just 400,000 votes, the narrowest margin yet], But with today’s expertise and technical capabilities, we don’t have such difficulties.”

Still, the one-hour gap between the closing times of polling stations in rural areas and large cities – and on which pollsters depend to calculate their estimates – means surprises cannot be ruled out. . This almost happened as a surge of support for third-man Jean-Luc Mélenchon in urban constituencies after the first round this year, with voters rushing to adjust their estimates after 8 p.m., leaving Le Pen Came very close to the score.

“Things can get tricky when candidates in a certain type of constituency perform significantly better than in previous elections,” explains Doiret. “In the case of Melenchon, their support in rural areas was largely unchanged from 2017, while it had increased in some urban areas. By definition, you can only find out after 8 p.m. that those polling stations have voted. Have started reporting your results.”

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