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The Nation

In This Ballot, Voter Service Is the Loser

Burned by two election night disasters, news organizations dissolve poll data provider.

January 14, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — After election night failures in 2000 and 2002, Voter News Service, the media consortium providing vote tabulation and exit polling data from across the country, has been voted out of existence by its board.

The six major news organizations that fund VNS -- Associated Press, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, the Fox News Channel and NBC News -- said Monday that the consortium was being dissolved.

Network executives said several collective plans to gather the data are under consideration, so that the media groups can continue to share the costs of such operations, which run in excess of $10 million per election cycle. Board members are pushing for a quick decision so a new system could be tested in time for the first presidential caucuses and primaries in early 2004.

Most likely, executives said, any new system would put the vote count and exit polling functions in separate organizations, in an attempt to avoid VNS' unwieldy structure, which contributed to its problems. Predicting outcomes has also become much more difficult in recent elections because of the rise in absentee voting in a number of states.

VNS' dissolution came after the 12-year-old consortium suffered a massive breakdown in its Nov. 5 election night vote projections and left news organizations scrambling to call the winners in races across the country.

That night, VNS was putting into effect what was to have been a major overhaul of its hardware and analysis methods. The revamping had been ordered after another failure, during the 2000 presidential election. At that time, VNS data led the networks, but not AP, to jump the gun in projecting first Al Gore and then George W. Bush the winner in Florida. The outcome in that state actually wasn't decided for several more weeks.

Members of the VNS consortium are now looking at using AP vote tabulation data, on which media outfits had long relied as a backup to VNS. AP would also set up its own backup system so "there will be fail-safes," said one network executive, who declined to provide details.

In addition, several competing proposals are being evaluated for gathering exit poll information from all 50 states, as well as a national exit poll. The polls provide media organizations with data about who voted and why they chose a particular candidate. As part of the dissolution, VNS ended its relationship with Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio-based research company hired to rebuild its system.

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