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On The Patriot Act, The Polls Say Everything

Today, President Obama signed a bill extending the Patriot Act for another four years. (Technically, a presidentially-designated autopen signed the bill, but that's apparently good enough for law enforcement.) Though the bill passed in the Senate on a 72-23 vote, two senators were especially vocal in their dissent. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) warned, “When the American people find out how the government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.” Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) added, “Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out.” So it’s worth asking—a decade later, what does the public think about the Patriot Act?

It’s hard to say, according to a 2007 study by Samuel J. Best and Monika L. McDermott of the University of Connecticut. In their paper, “Measuring Opinions vs. Non-Opinions—The Case of the USA Patriot Act,” they found that question wording could drastically swing the response in polls about the Patriot Act, with anywhere from 33 percent to 69 percent of respondents indicating support for the legislation. Experimenting with their own survey questions, Best and McDermott concluded that many people did not know much about the legislation, but instead tailored their responses to however the question was worded. When given a general description of the Patriot Act—“The USA Patriot Act makes it easier for the federal government to collect information on suspicious Americans in order to reduce the threat of terrorism”—62 percent of respondents supported the legislation. But when given specific information about the act’s provisions for home and library searches, support dropped to 40 percent and 53 percent, respectively. (Alternatively, when only given information about financial searches, support rose to 66 percent.) Tellingly, when not given an explicit option to answer “no opinion,” only 24 percent of respondents volunteered that they had no opinion. But when explicitly given the choice to answer “no opinion,” that number jumped to 41 percent, and support dropped from 62 percent to 46 percent, indicating that when respondents didn’t know, they erred on the side of supporting the legislation. While Best and McDormott worry that polling the uniformed only “manufactures information” about public opinion, they note that the only alternative may be to avoid polling the uninformed altogether—or at least to rethink the way we read public opinion surveys.