Sunday, August 10, 2008


Since black Americans running for state or national office regularly poll higher than their actual vote totals, I asked readers if it is ever OK to lie to a pollster. Readers were split, according to an unscientific poll on my column's blog: 59 percent said that it was a breach of ethics to misrepresent yourself to a pollster, 27 percent said that it was not and 14 percent said that it was unethical, but that they would do it anyway.

"Reluctance to reveal racial prejudice in an opinion poll is just an extension of political correctness foisted upon us by the liberal left," writes Gary Denys of Chatham, Ontario. "It's not unethical. It's only human nature to protect oneself."

Another reader writes that he first voted in the 1976 U.S. presidential election, and has nursed a grudge ever since.

"The TV networks were voicing their projections before the West Coast polls closed," he writes. "The news outlets revealed a breathtaking lack of ethics."

Ever since, he has taken his cue from the late newspaper columnist Mike Royko, who, during the 1984 U.S. presidential election, urged people to join him in "a noble cause" and lie to pollsters.

But H. Watkins Ellerson echoes the opinion of the majority of readers: "It is always unethical to misrepresent oneself to anybody," he writes. "One may (courageously) remain silent or otherwise evasively dissemble without lying."

Check out other opinions here, or post your own by clicking on "Comments" or "Post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Seglin,

I regularly read your column on Sundays in our local paper, The Columbus Dispatch. I particularly enjoy when you feature comments and "dilemmas" from my fellow Columbus neighbors. Apparently, I missed the column where you asked your readers about misrepresenting themselves to pollsters. I couldn't resist commenting on this and hopefully providing some insight.

I am not shy about my political leanings as I am a conservative Republican. I live in Franklin County, which typically goes democratic in all general elections. I'm a 30-year-old woman, married with no children and a working professional with an MBA, so I think my personal demographic occasionally ranges on the fringe for Republicans. You'd have to assume that most Republicans are middle to upper class, college educated white males, or at least that's what the media would lead us to believe. So, if I was approached by a pollster on which candidate I intended to support, I'd be honest. But you're definitely on to something when you wonder why African American candidates poll better than they perform in elections.

In the past several months, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck have all offered their own theories on this phenomenon. But all seem to point back to one thing - race and being viewed as a racist or bigot based on your presidential candidate preference. Sen. Barack Obama failed miserably in the West Virginia presidential primary. I remember hearing a sound byte from one woman interviewed as she exited her election precinct. She was asked for whom she voted and why. Her answer, paraphrased, was that she wouldn't vote for a black man. This poor woman become the poster child for West Virginia white, Democratic racists. I'm almost certain that from that day forward, any white person polled at a Democratic primary said they voted for Obama simply to avoid being branded a racist. Of course, people are randomly selected for phone polls where it would be easier to be honest about a choice for candidate. But those polled are often asked to provide demographic information as well. Obama's campaign, although not overly vocal, has implied that if a voter is a white Democrat that didn't vote Obama, then he or she must be a racist.

What bigger motivation for lying or misrepresenting oneself to a pollster? I seems easier to me to just say you supported the African American over the white candidate simply to avoid a fight regardless of the ethics. The path of least resistance is the one most people choose to follow sometimes. I wonder whatever happened to a voter's ability to decide which candidate to support based on the candidate's merits rather than the color of his or her skin? Voting one's conscious over voting along party lines, or race lines, seems to the bigger ethical dilemma here.

Thanks always for a wonderful, insightful, and thought-provoking column!

Lauren Barber
Dublin, Ohio