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SPOTLIGHT
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Kansas Speaks and pollsters listen

Published on -10/24/2012, 11:03 AM

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By TRAVIS PERRY

As our nation grinds toward the presidential election in November, information-gathering initiatives have officially kicked into high gear. From trending topics on Twitter and telephone surveys to political polls and data mining, the average voter's desire to keep their fingers on the pulse of the nation is practically at a fever pitch.

While the need for such information is important at a national level, polling the opinion here at home in the heartland is just as vital. It's a need which has been filled by the Docking Institute at Fort Hays State University, in the form of the organization's annual poll, Kansas Speaks.

Orchestrated by Docking Institute Director Gary Brinker, the 2012 edition of Kansas Speaks was distributed Sunday to print subscribers of the Wichita Eagle and The Hays Daily News. It attempted to gauge the opinions of Kansans on a number of issues, ranging from perception of the state to satisfaction with government officials, as well as the general stance on issues such as the controversial Affordable Care Act.

But it's one thing to say you're going to accurately represent the opinions of 2.8 million people, actually doing it is something else entirely. This is where organizations like Kansas Watchdog come in.

Former Watchdog reporter Paul Soutar last wrote about Kansas Speaks in 2010. At the time, the Docking Institute was using an array of methods to contact individuals for the survey, one of which involved mailing a secure password to respondents, allowing them to answer questions online.

The 2010 survey utilized a variety of methods to contact a wide sample of individuals, something which is becoming increasingly difficult to do. Younger households are eschewing landlines in favor of cellphones, the numbers for which aren't always available to pollsters. Additionally, many seniors lack Internet connectivity. There's no longer a single tried-and-true way to gather an adequate sample size. While the need to implement online polling was clear, doing so securely poses significant hurdles.

Kansas Watchdog received the password for the electronic polling despite not being an intended recipient. After filling out a survey to prove the breach in security, Soutar informed Brinker of the matter. The concern was that any number of uninvited participants could also do the same, including those interested in skewing the poll's results. Brinker referenced Kansas Watchdog's role in helping improve security of Kansas Speaks' polling procedures in the edition released Sunday.

"Kansas Watchdog pointed out a very legitimate flaw in our methodology. To be honest, I was kind of naive I guess, at the time it didn't occur to me that someone would do something like that," Brinker said. "So I'm very glad that Kansas Watchdog pointed that out. The repercussions are very obvious, someone could skew the results and make the public believe something that wasn't true."

Brinker added the incident also caused the Docking Institute to implement additional security features on its paper survey forms, too, to prevent unauthorized recipients from copying and submitting unsolicited data.

"We're very grateful to Kansas Watchdog, and we hope that you will continue to scrutinize our methodology," Brinker said.

The fact that our reporting was able to affect change at a statewide level is something of which we're proud; while our coverage ranges from rooting out corruption to shining a light on important issues, in the end, we always strive for results that will help strengthen Kansas as a whole. Considering that Kansas Speaks data is used to help inform state legislators who in turn craft government policy based on public opinion, this was no small matter.

Here at Kansas Watchdog, we have a singular mission: to sound the alarm when things go wrong in the Sunflower state. Whether it's government cronyism or simply an unsecure survey, we exist to protect the interests of ordinary Kansans.

It's a task we take seriously, and we plan to keep a watchful eye on the state for years to come.

Travis Perry is an investigative reporter for Kansas Watchdog.

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