ST. PETERSBURG — Political polls on local and state races have been part of the city’s political landscape for several years, helping voters separate front-runners from also-rans.
More than 20 polls were conducted during the city’s primary election. With some polls used to exclude fringe candidates from political forums, the results matter.
But the number of polls conducted for future local elections could fall dramatically because of new Federal Communications Commission restrictions on calling cellphones.
The new regulations, which went into effect last week, are intended to curb telemarketers pestering cellphone users, but they also likely will have a chilling effect on polling companies that use automated calling systems, including StPetePolls, which conducted 18 surveys during the primary campaign.
Now, such companies risk hefty fines if they make so-called “robocalls” to cellphones without written permission. Polling firms can still call residents on their land lines, but that will mean smaller sample sizes and less accurate polling because so many people use cell phones exclusively, said Matt 8Florell, owner of StPetePolls.
“I’m frustrated,” Florell said. “I’m not sure what polling we can do after today.”
Cold-calling cellphones numbers was made illegal by the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act. But some pollsters, including StPetePolls, have argued they had implicit permission to call voters who gave their cell phone numbers to Supervisor of Elections offices when registering to vote or updating their voter registrations.
That will no longer pass muster under the FCC’s new definition of consent. The new rules are intended to protect consumers who are charged for incoming calls. Penalties for violating the law range from $500 per call but can be as high as $1,500 for willful violation.
The new restrictions come as pollsters are ramping up for the 2014 election season, which includes a gubernatorial race, elections for the state House and Senate and local races for school board and county commission.
Florell was hoping that spate of elections would make profitable StPetePolls, which charges as much as $500 per poll. Since he started the company two years ago, StPetePolls has been subsidized by parent company Fextel, which leases automated-calling systems to companies for telemarketing.
Florell said he may be able to continue polling in St. Petersburg, where 20 percent of registered voters’ records list cell phone numbers, but the margin of error will be greater. Polling for other races, such as for state House seats, would be too unreliable, he said.
“It’s effectively going to kill the business plan we had in place for StPetePolls,” he said.
Even before the new regulations, pollsters using automated-calling were finding it tougher to capture representative samples because of the increasing number of households using cell phones exclusively. A 2012 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 35 percent of homes had only wireless telephones.
Tampa-based pollster Tom Eldon recently conducted a statewide poll for the expected gubernatorial battle between Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist.
An accurate sample for such a statewide poll needs a sample size of at least 800 voters. The industry standard is that about 20 percent, or 160, of those come from households with only cellphones, he said.
Eldon was already using live operators to interview voters contacted by cellphone, but the new regulations will impact a segment of companies conducting public policy polls, he said.
“These changes will make it more expensive to conduct credible IVR or ‘robo polls’ in the future,” he said. “At the end of the day, the only way to do that will be to conduct a percentage of hand-dialed, live-operator interviews.
Losing some local polls could dampen enthusiasm for local races because people like to know who the front-runners are, and to follow reporting of polls in the media builds interest in the races, said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
“You put this kind of restriction on polling, and it really limits the entire credibility and believability of polls,” he said.