ELLSWORTH — It would have been hard to tell who was more surprised – the purported “pollster” or the “pollee.”
Annie O’Neill, mother of Democratic Senate candidate Moira O’Neill of Surry, received a call a month ago from a young man who said he was conducting an election survey.
O’Neill asked for the name of his employer. He said he didn’t know.
“He said that he is a contractor,” O’Neill said.
After a few questions, the caller said he would read statements about the challenger in the race for the Senate seat now held by Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County).
He said the questions were designed to gauge which statements might affect O’Neill’s vote.
Langley is being challenged by Moira O’Neill.
The man then went on to make several claims Annie O’Neill knew were untrue.
She told the caller that the statements were false and that she knew Moira O’Neill better than most.
“She’s my daughter,” O’Neill told the young man. “He started to laugh. He thought it was funny.’”
Theodore Fletcher of Surry, who has been working on Moira O’Neill’s campaign, said he and a half-dozen or so residents that he knows of in the area received the same call.
“We’re kind of astounded,” Fletcher said. “Moira is determined that she’s not getting down into the gutter, but this is just on the edge of dirty politics.”
When the Secretary of State’s Office was called, a spokesman referred the caller to the state Ethics Commission.
Paul Lavin, the commission’s assistant director, said the reputed polling call sounded like it might be a “push poll,” the characteristics of which are determined by law.
A “push poll” is any paid telephone survey that references a candidate or group of candidates “other than in a basic preference question.”
A push poll, as defined by law, does not collect or tabulate survey results, prefaces a question regarding support for a candidate on the basis of an untrue statement and is primarily intended to suppress or change the vote of the person receiving the call.
The statute – which carries a $500 fine – goes on to require people conducting push polls to identify the person or organization sponsoring the call and register as a designated agent with the state.
“We have in the past investigated something that was a push poll,” Lavin said.
It’s all a mystery to Langley, who said he has been the victim of push polls in virtually all of his elections and was never able to get to the bottom of any of them.
“I hate them,” Langley said. “How can they know anything negative about my opponent who has never been in the public sector? It’s crazy stuff.”
Lavin said it would be nearly impossible to track down the source of the caller given the barebones information and the fact that it occurred some weeks ago.