A bill to fix New Hampshire's misguided "push poll" law passed the state Senate and will be discussed at a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

After several rounds of amendment in committee, the Senate finally passed S.B. 196 on April 18 and the House suspended their usual rules to allow the bill to be considered (since it is running late). It had passed the Senate Public Works and Municipal Affairs Committee originally on March 6.

On April 30, the House Election Law Committee will meet about the legislation.

This bipartisan legislation was introduced at the request of the Marketing Research Association (MRA) and the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) and has the support of party leaders and the Governor's office.

Fixing New Hampshire's law
Many researchers avoid doing political survey and opinion research in New Hampshire to avoid compromising their science and their clients. The state's "push poll" law requires ordinary research calls to disclose their sponsors when asking mundane questions about relatively objective or factual matters in an election.

The existing law biases legitimate political research calls in New Hampshire, distorting the results of research and making it impossible to accurately reflect the thoughts and opinions of New Hampshire residents. Disclosure of who paid for or commissioned a poll can distort the answers provided by respondents and makes it extremely difficult to produce scientifically and statistically valid data in New Hampshire.

Real researchers doing real research have been ensnared by this law. MRA and AAPC filed an amicus brief in a state supreme court case last month in opposition to the law. MRA also supported a succesful request for an advisory opinion from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in April 2012 that the New Hampshire law should not apply to polls regarding candidates for federal office.

As amended, S.B. 196 will not make the state statute perfect, but it will be a humongous improvement upon the current law, and should allow legitimate research to retun to the state unimpeded.

The fix: S.B. 196 (as amended)
As further amended, S.B. 196 defines "push polling" as: "(a) Calling voters on behalf of, in support of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office by telephone; and (b) Asking questions related to opposing candidates for public office which state, imply, or convey information about the candidates character, status, or political stance or record; (c) Conducting such calling as part of a series of as part of a series of like telephone calls that consist of 2,000 connected calls that last less than 2 minutes in presidential, gubernatorial, United States senatorial, or United States congressional elections; or conducting such calling as part of a series of like telephone calls that consist of 500 connected calls that last less than 2 minutes in executive council, state senate, state representative, city, town school district, or village district elections; and (d) Conducting such calling for purposes other than bona fide survey and opinion research."

"Bona Fide Survey and Opinion Research" is defined as "the collection and analysis of data regarding opinions, needs, awareness, knowledge, views, experiences, and behaviors of a population, through the development and administration of surveys, interviews, focus groups, polls, observation, or other research methodologies, in which no sales, promotional, or marketing efforts are involved, and through which there is no attempt to influence a participant’s attitudes or behavior. Bona fide survey and opinion research includes message testing, which is the study for research purposes of how individuals react to positive or negative information on a candidate, elected public official, or ballot question."

Persons engaging in "push polling" would be required to: "prior to asking any person contacted a question relating to a candidate: (a) Inform the person that the telephone call is a "paid political advertisement;" and (b) Identify the organization making the call and the organization paying for the call; and (c) Provide a valid, current, publicly-listed telephone number for the organization making the call; and (d) Identify that the telephone call is being made on behalf of, in support of, or in opposition to a particular candidate or candidates for public office and identify that candidate or candidates by name."

The fix: not making the perfect the enemy of the good
The major change you'll notice from the last rendition of S.B. 196 is the threshold the Attorney General's office would be expected to use in determining when a calling campaign might constitute a push poll versus a real poll.

The MRA-suggested threshold of 2,000 calls before a campaign should be raising suspicions (in line with the industry's long-time proposed threshold) is based on sampling theory. The smaller the sample, the harder it is to maintain a respectable confidence interval. According to  sampling experts, the accuracy of results starts to deteriorate precipitously once a study goes below a sample size of 1,000. That sample size is irrespective of the size of the population being research. Researchers particularly need a certain number of interviews per target group (district, gender, party, etc.) in order to be able to analze the results effectively.

A few Senators expressed fears about that high a threshold and insisted on a significalty lower level. At one point, a Senator was demanding a maximum threshold of 100, or even only 50 calls, which certainly would impair the accuracy of any poll's results.

The resulting lower threshold for calling campaigns for state and local-level elections -- 500 -- is not good, but better than the current status quo that makes polling so difficult in the state. Even getting the threshold set that high was a significant battle, and part of the reason that it took so long for the Senate to pass this bill.

What happens next
We are working to secure an MRA member to testify on behalf of the research profession at Tuesday's committee hearing. We will also soon be asking all researchers in New Hampshire to contact their state Representatives in support of S.B. 196.

A potential hiccup in the process, assuming we get this bill passed from the House, will be getting the Senate to agree to it again. Because of a drafting error, the House will have to make a minor correction, requiring S.B. 196 to be approved once more time by the Senate before it can go to the Governor for signature into law.

MRA will continue to advocate for the profession and keep members informed.