Adventures in opaque polling

From The Hill -


Poll after poll show that ordinary Americans simply don’t cotton to the idea of an Internet sales tax, such as those proposed by the so-called “Marketplace Fairness Act” or the more recent Remote Transactions Parity Act.

A June 2013 Gallup Poll that asked whether respondents would “vote for or against a law that would allow each state to collect sales taxes on purchases its residents make online over the Internet” found that 57 percent said they’d vote against, with just 39 percent saying they’d support it. Among those between the ages 18 and 29, the results were even more dramatic 73 percent opposed to 27 percent in favor.

Working with our partners, the National Taxpayers Union, we at the R Street Institute commissioned the firm Mercury to do more extensive polling later in 2013 and found very similar results. When asked if they would “favor or oppose new legislation that changes the system for how states collect sales taxes from Internet purchases,” 57.1 percent were opposed and just 35.1 were in favor. The results were closest among Democrats, where the margin of opposition was 5.1 percentage points. The margin was 22.3 points among independents and a towering 38.5 points among Republicans.

Mercury’s polling also tested common arguments in support of Internet sales tax legislation and common arguments from the opposition. Among respondents, the strongest responses were not frustration about having to pay a few more dollars for online purchase. Instead, the polling responses made clear strong support for the proposition that state tax authorities should not be allowed to reach across their borders. In other words, respondents were not just indulging a knee-jerk reaction against the “T” word -- taxes.

Subsequent state-level polling by Mercury fell in line with these earlier results. The polls found wide found wide margins of opposition in such key presidential battlegrounds as Ohio (25 points), Virginia (26 points), Florida (13 points) and North Carolina (26 points).

The Sunshine State Survey from the University of South Florida subsequently polled Floridians on whether collecting sales tax on Internet purchases would be the “wrong direction” or “right direction” for the state. They found 57 percent believed it would be the wrong direction, compared to just 24 percent who said it would be the right direction. Among those aged 18 to 34, the margin was 60 percent to 17 percent opposed.

These polls all have two things in common: they find strong opposition to Internet sales tax legislation and they are fully transparent in releasing the precise questions asked and relevant crosstabs for analysis.

What, then, to make of a poll recently released by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) which claims “seven out of 10 Americans support federal legislation that would require online-only vendors to collect sales tax at the time of purchase?” Surely a result this divergent from existing public opinion research on the matter must derive from the wording of the questions asked.

Unfortunately, the ICSC isn’t divulging any of the questions they asked and, after repeated attempts last week, we were unsuccessful in securing a list of questions or additional demographic detail on responses. Absent such transparency, it’s difficult to make anything of the poll as a useful measure of genuine public sentiment. Until further information is released, it will remain a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

The most important reason to approach Internet sales tax legislation with caution is that bills like MFA and RTPA empower states to tax across borders, harm small Internet-based businesses, and impose significant burdens on interstate commerce. But they also face broad and deep public opposition, at least according to transparently conducted public opinion research.

Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, if a poll doesn’t release its questions, does it make a sound?

Moylan is executive director of the R Street Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that promotes free markets and limited, effective government.


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