Why can't Pollsters Call Cell Phones?

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.

A cell phone.
A cell phone.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

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Discussion Comments


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?


@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.


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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