Could Twitter Influence the German Election?

Twitter moves some Germans to call for a ban on exit polls, amid fears of leaks.

ByABC News
June 30, 2009, 7:19 AM

June 30, 2009 — -- Ever since the German presidential election result was posted on Twitter before being announced officially there has been growing concern that the September election could be influenced by leaked exit polls. Politicians and opinion pollsters are demanding pledges of secrecy and there are even calls to ban exit polls altogether.

It was just after five o'clock in the evening when Chancellor Angela Merkel gathered the members of the executive committee of her conservative Christian Democrats in Berlin. The polling stations were still open, but the head of the party already knew that she had missed her election target. "We can safely assume that there will be no black-yellow majority," she said, referring to her preferred coalition of the CDU with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). At the same time she gave the troops their orders for the hours to come. "We have the mandate to form the government."

To date, federal elections have always proceeded the way they did on Sept. 18, 2005. When, at around 4 p.m., senior politicians gather in their party headquarters, the opinion poll institutes present the results of their exit polls. Television viewers only get to hear the results of these polls, which generally correspond, within a few percentage points, to the actual outcome, at 6 p.m, after the polling stations have closed.

But what has become a new reality of the election ritual is threatening to endanger the voting process. Parties and fractions doubt that, in the Internet age, exit poll results can be held secret for long enough. Germany's federal election supervisor Roderich Egeler is warning of the worse possible scenario: "It would be disastrous if the results of the exit polls were to be made public before the polls close."

And the focus of all these concerns is the online text-messaging service Twitter. The almost ubiquitous social networking site has made it possible to distribute confidential information via mobile phone over the Internet in a matter of seconds. Now parliamentarians are worried that the federal election on Sept. 27 could be sullied by confidential information. SPD domestic policy spokesman Dieter Wiefelspütz warns that networks could form to use the results of the exit polls "to influence voters at the last minute," adding: "If the results of the exit polls are twittered, we're lost."

This could have serious consequences. Should the results of the surveys be known in advance, the election result could be declared constitutionally invalid. Citizens or parties could refute the results, possibly necessitating a re-vote.

According to the federal electoral law, the results of exit polls can not be published prior to the "completion of the voting period." Infringements can be penalized with a €50,000 ($70,000) fine. But there's ample reason to doubt that Twitter informants would be put off by this threat, especially after what occured during the recent election of the German president.