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Why can't Pollsters Call Cell Phones?

Pollsters face legal and logistical hurdles when calling cell phones, primarily due to regulations designed to protect consumer privacy. Unlike landlines, cell numbers aren't publicly listed, making them harder to access and requiring consent for contact. Intrigued by the evolving landscape of polling in the digital age? Discover how these challenges are reshaping the future of surveys.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Pollsters actually can call cell phones, but there are a few restrictions which cause most pollsters to simply exclude cell phones from their polls. As cell phone usage rises, some organizations which track polling and the data collected on polls have raised concerns about exclusion of the cell phone only demographic. By routinely omitting cell phones from polls, these organizations argue, polling organizations may be missing out on crucial data, especially since cell phone only households are often heavily clustered within specific population demographics.

One of the major obstacles to pollsters who wish to call cell phones is that in the United States, federal law specifically prohibits the use of automated dialing systems to make unsolicited calls to cell phones under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). This means that if pollsters want to call phones, they must dial the numbers by hand. Since most pollsters rely heavily on automated systems to make their work easier, this obstacle is by no means insignificant.

A cell phone.
A cell phone.

In addition, pollsters must consider the fact that many cell phone users are charged for air time. Because of this, some cell phone owners may be reluctant to respond to polling questions on their cell phones. As a result, pollsters may feel obligated to offer some form of compensation, and in some areas compensation is actually required by law. Because of these issues, some pollsters feel it is better to simply exclude cell phones from polls.

Cell phone owners are often reluctant to respond to polling questions over the phone.
Cell phone owners are often reluctant to respond to polling questions over the phone.

Historically, most people who had cell phones also had land lines. This trend is steadily shifting, but polling organizations have been slow to respond to it, partially because hard data about cell phone only households is difficult to obtain. The United States Census tends to provide the best data on this, but since a full census only occurs every 10 years, the reliability of current data may be questionable. Pollsters historically avoided cell phones so that they wouldn't hit the same household twice, thereby duplicating data.

Cell phones also pose a geographic challenge. For example, someone may move to Illinois from California, but keep his or her cell phone number, for a variety of reasons. Pollsters carrying out a survey in California would call the cell phone number, only to discover that the number's owner actually lives in Illinois. This might mean that the data was worthless, if the pollster was carrying out a poll on the basis of geographic region.

Now that you know all the reasons why pollsters tend to avoid cell phones, you might be interested in knowing how pollsters avoid calling cell phone numbers. Cell phone users tend to use dedicated exchanges; for example, in the phone number 123-456-7890, the exchange is “456.” Because cell phone companies control specific exchanges, pollsters can simply exclude those exchanges from dedicated lists, focusing instead on exchanges owned by wired telephone companies.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are pollsters restricted from calling cell phones?

Pollsters face legal and practical restrictions when it comes to calling cell phones. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) prohibits most unsolicited calls to cell phones using auto-dialers or prerecorded messages without prior consent. Additionally, manually dialing cell phone numbers is more time-consuming and costly for polling organizations, which can limit the number of cell phone users they contact. For more information, visit the FCC's guide on the TCPA at https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/stop-unwanted-robocalls-and-texts.

How does the inability to call cell phones affect polling accuracy?

The difficulty in reaching cell phone users can skew polling results, as the demographic that primarily uses cell phones—often younger, more urban, and more tech-savvy individuals—may be underrepresented. This can lead to a sample that doesn't accurately reflect the population's views. Pollsters must adjust their methods to account for this bias, but despite these efforts, there remains a challenge in achieving truly representative samples. The Pew Research Center discusses these challenges in detail at https://www.pewresearch.org/methodology/u-s-survey-research/.

What methods do pollsters use to include cell phone users in their surveys?

To include cell phone users, pollsters often employ a combination of live callers, online surveys, and text message polling. Live callers can legally dial cell phone numbers, although it is more expensive. Online surveys can reach cell phone users who opt-in, and text message polling can be used with prior consent. Pollsters also weight their samples to better represent the demographics of cell phone users. The American Association for Public Opinion Research provides insights into these methodologies at https://www.aapor.org/Education-Resources/Reports.aspx.

Are there any alternatives to calling for collecting poll data?

Yes, there are several alternatives to calling for collecting poll data. Online surveys have become increasingly popular, allowing respondents to participate at their convenience. Mail-in surveys, although less common, are still used for certain demographics. Additionally, interactive voice response (IVR) technology allows respondents to answer polls using their phone keypads. Social media and data analytics also offer new avenues for gauging public opinion. The Pew Research Center often explores these alternative methods in their studies, which can be found at https://www.pewresearch.org.

Can cell phone users opt-in to receive calls from pollsters?

Yes, cell phone users can opt-in to receive calls from pollsters. This is typically done by signing up through a pollster's website or by agreeing to participate in surveys when contacted by other means. Once a user has given explicit consent, pollsters can legally call their cell phone for polling purposes. This opt-in process helps ensure compliance with regulations and increases the likelihood of reaching a representative sample of the population. More information on consent and polling practices can be found through the American Association for Public Opinion Research at https://www.aapor.org/Standards-Ethics/AAPOR-Code-of-Ethics.aspx.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

irontoenail

I would have thought it would be more expensive for the polling company as well, to be calling cell phones. I do think it will be very interesting to see how many homes manage to keep a home line over the next few decades. It's actually a really good idea to have one as a backup to the cell service, since different conditions make each of those phone networks go down. And if you have to answer the occasional presidential poll, well, that's kind of a patriotic duty, isn't it?

clintflint

@indigomoth - Honestly, those opinion polls aren't all that reliable anyway. They are usually just used to give a general ballpark figure rather than to conduct a rigorous study of opinion.

I have to admit I'm glad that they don't call cell phones very often. I find it difficult enough to hear and understand them on a normal home phone, let alone on a cell phone when I'm out and about. I don't know why, but their line is always really bad. It might be because they outsource the pollsters to other countries, but I don't know.

indigomoth

I should think that there is a problem with the validity of the data when you don't really know who owns the cell phone. It's rare that a person will have multiple home lines, but I know several friends who have multiple cell phones.

They aren't really tied to an address the way that home phones are, so I'd imagine it makes it easy to skew the data unintentionally.

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    • A cell phone.
      By: Sergey YAkovlev
      A cell phone.
    • Cell phone owners are often reluctant to respond to polling questions over the phone.
      By: Peter Atkins
      Cell phone owners are often reluctant to respond to polling questions over the phone.