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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 02/ 6/2009

The 'Riffs Poll: Fishier Than a Florida Recount

By Michael Cavna

It was 3 a.m. and I couldn't go back to sleep, so I did what many a journalist -- if not many an American -- does when insomnia occurs in the Information Age: I clicked on my computer.

I surfed a few blogs and news sites, then went over to my own blog to see whether there'd been any provocative comments posted since I'd left the newsroom. Soon, a comics poll I'd posted some days before caught my eye.

The online poll -- which asked readers what the funniest current comic is -- had drawn a few hundred votes. Now -- at 3 a.m., mind you -- the vote was increasing very quickly, steadily, like mercury rising or a rogue stock price. And the voting was conspicuously in favor of a couple of comic strips that had been polling near the bottom.

Obviously, something was fishier than a Florida recount. This wasn't a vote -- this was a movement.

Rapidly, the poll ballooned to nearly a thousand votes. What in the name of Gallup was going on? Gratefully, I got word from an anonymous syndicated cartoonist -- let us call him Deep Vote -- who solved my mystery. The cartoonist's advice, in short: Follow the Google group.

Sure enough, a Google discussion group had discovered the 'Riffs poll and decided to sandbag it for a particular comic or two. The time-stamps on the messages fairly jibed with the voting stampede.

Granted, this was no scientific poll, but still I wondered: How often do newspapers' comics polls get sandbagged these days? Turns out, after I made a few calls to several editors, I had my answer: way more than I even realized.

The verdict: When it comes to comics, some newspaper polls are about as scientific as a Sea Monkey. That is, they're eye-catching, colorful, often misshapen -- and often grow for entirely mysterious reasons.

So my question to 'Riffs readers is: Do you care when comics polls are overridden by rigged movements or hacked for technological skewing? In other words: How seriously do you take your online comics poll by any newspaper? We already know that some in the industry use them for sales.

The floor is now yours.

LATER TODAY: Cartoonists, syndicate editors and features editors discuss the trouble with comic polls these days.

By Michael Cavna  | February 6, 2009; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  The Morning Line  
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Next: Are Too Many Newspaper Comic Polls a Sham?

Comments runs polls, under the poll they write:
"This whole thing is wildly inaccurate. Rounding errors, ballot stuffers, dynamic IPs, firewalls. If you're using these numbers to do anything important, you're insane."

Posted by: wiredog | February 6, 2009 9:54 AM | Report abuse

online polls rank right up there with popup ads. I don't do either of them anymore.

On a more comical note, did you see the article about raccoons on the White House grounds? Over the Hedge has our wascally friends on a road trip to DC right now!

Posted by: MSchafer | February 6, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

"Obviously, something was fishier than a Florida recount"
Please update your references. I believe we have passed this honor to Ohio four years ago and they in turn have passed it to Minnesota. Thank you from South West (where at least most of the residents meant to vote republican) Florida

Posted by: Clix | February 6, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Oh, yes, these very unscientific polls are not worth much of anything. People create auto-run programs to enter thousands of votes for their favorites. Wiredog is right to point out that a disclaimer is needed whenever a poll is done; papers need to do these as entertainment, if at all.

Posted by: dal2 | February 6, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

I certainly hope the Washington Post is not guided in its choice of strips to publish by the results of online (or call-in, or mail-in) ballots. Those are always so rigged that they are largely meaningless. "Mary Worth" can be named the funniest strip. Oh wait - it kind of is. Never mind.

Posted by: seismic-2 | February 6, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Note that your commenters called out the suspicious vote when it happened. :-)

Posted by: tomtildrum | February 6, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

>>to: clix

you're absolutely right, though i can't promise my metaphoric hangover from rewatching HBO's "Recount" last week won't continue. would you buy: More Unbelievable Than a Buckeye Vote? More Erroneous Than Ohio? i welcome all alternates.


Posted by: cavnam | February 6, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Michael, On Jan. 29th I posted to the comic poll post:

"Whoa - what happened with the votes since last night. There were a couple of hundred votes and Pearls before Swine had a pretty consistent 29% and Cul de Sac had 13%. Now Pearls drops to 16%, Cul de Sac is 29% and Pooch Cafe (which wasn't even in the running if I remember) is 23%!

Did we have some vote stuffing overnight?

Posted by: elyrest | January 29, 2009 1:16 PM "

I didn't include the overall count then, but I think in was in the 600's. I knew right away something was fishy. I like polls, but I never take them seriously - there are too many ways to manipulate them. It's always obvious to a regular reader when someone has posted a poll on a blog somewhere as the votes change quickly and trends often do a 180.

Posted by: elyrest | February 6, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

>>to: elyrest and tomtildrum

absolutely--and *thanks.* i made a point of giving all due credit in today's second (longer) blogpost. my hats off to you!


Posted by: cavnam | February 6, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Cavna
While my tongue was planted firmly in my cheek for my comment I appreciate the response.

On the editors or other powers that be using totally unscientific polling to make decisions I always assumed that it was to evade all culpability, establish plausible deniability, or was an indication of total lack of imagination.
But then again I'm a cynic.


Posted by: Clix | February 6, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

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