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Calling All Voters - Well, Sort Of

This story was written by Ben Penn, The Diamondback

Youth and minorities are two groups receiving unprecedented attention during this year's presidential race. Yet the widely reported poll results intended to indicate which candidate is likely to win may not accurately reflect these demographics, due to a failure to include cell phone-only users in sample populations.

While some polls are just now beginning to include opinions from the booming population of primarily young and minority Americans who forgo landlines in favor of cell phones, other polling organizations still only dial landlines.

This practice, which is still used by major polling firms such as The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press - which primarily dials landlines - and Rasmussen Reports, divides pollsters, experts and students alike on its ability to accurately report public opinion.

The widely used Gallup Polls began implementing cell phone users into their sampling populations Jan. 2, according to Eric Nielsen, senior director of media strategies for Gallup. Nielsen said Gallup first noticed Americans' inclination to only use cell phones in the 2000 and 2004 elections, but did not start polling cell phone users until this year because the number of Americans who use cell phones instead of landlines grew from about 6 percent earlier in the decade to around 13 percent in 2007.

"We knew that the numbers were going up; it was something that was going to have to be implemented eventually," Nielsen said of Americans who only use cell phones. "And it was younger people, it was minorities, it was students, it was people who don't own a house - who rent a house."

The Pew Research Center's website states the company's decision to often call landlines instead of cell phones by describing a host of difficulties and costs which arise when surveying cell phones. However, the organization does acknowledge that "as the proportion of Americans who rely solely or mostly on a cell phone for their telephone services continues to grow, more surveys are being conducted with people on their cell phones."

But University of Marylandassociate professor John Newhagen, who teaches a course on public opinion research in the journalism school, said that regardless of the complications of polling cell phone-only users, this youth-dominated population should not be ignored.

"The main problem is that I don't believe the number [of cell phone-only users] is not big enough to worry about," Newhagen said. "My biggest concern would be that they're under-sampling young people."

Government and politics professor James Gimpel has a more optimistic view of the polling industry, saying those pollsters who have started dialing cell phone numbers indicate a positive trend.

"I think they're getting better at that. I don't think that's really an issue," Gimpel said. "It's potentially a problem. I think most polls have adaptive strategies to get at cell phone users now."

In addition to concerns about the challenges of dialing cell phones, many pollsters are not convinced that the inclusion of cell phone-only users would lead to more accurate poll results, due in large part to the youth's low voter turnout, according to Evan Lewis, a research associate at the Program on International Policy Attitudes, a polling center affiliated with the university's public policy school.

"There's a tendency in this current election [for pollsters] to downplay the participation of young people. And it's because in the past they haven't voted," said Lewis, who explained poll results for certain demographic groups are sometimes weighted based on the historic likelihood of each group to vote. "Based on the primaries [this year], young people participated in large numbers. Alot of people are skeptical as to whether some of the people who showed up in the primaries will participate in the actual dance."

One student who does pay attention to polling results, junior broadcast journalism major Josh Narotsky, said his generation is left out when polling firms do not dial cell phone users.

"A lot of college students [only] use cell phones now," Narotsky said. "If they can't poll cell phone users, they're essentially taking out an entire demographic."

But a number of other students said they do not feel a major injustice is taking place. Some, like freshman criminology and criminal justice and psychology major Bethany Offutt, place little importance on polls to begin with, while others like sophomore biology major Divya Kulshreshtha fear pollsters would invade students' privacy by calling their cell phones.

Lewis, for one, thinks youth participation will be high this election, but said the true indicator of whether pollsters are missing out on reflecting the cell phone-only users' opinions will be the exit polls Nov. 4.

"It's hard to say exactly what the effect on the election will be, but if you define the voice of the people as the polls, it's possible that they're underestimating their voice and they don't have as much of a voice as you anticipate," he said.