Strange Breakdown of VNS on Election Night

Breakdown Leaves Networks Hanging
Voter News Service, which provides key data, says it "was not satisfied with the accuracy of today's exit poll analysis."
By Dana Calvo, Elizabeth Jensen and Richard Simon
Times Staff Writers

November 6 2002

WASHINGTON -- Voters and candidates anxious for early results from Tuesday's elections were left hanging like chads when a key system used to predict winners broke down.

As a result, a nation accustomed to hearing the networks predict winners as soon as the polls close was forced to do something unusual in the age of instant information: wait for ballots to be counted.

Voter News Service, the media consortium that conducts the exit polling used by the networks and Associated Press to project winners, said it "was not satisfied with the accuracy of today's exit poll analysis."

The decision not to release the data meant that many voters went to bed Tuesday night not knowing who won a number of closely fought House and Senate races.

The snafu was the latest for a system that suffered a major embarrassment -- and came under scrutiny during congressional hearings -- after making the wrong calls in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. Networks used the VNS data to announce the election first for Al Gore, then for George W. Bush, finally saying it was too close to call.

This year's breakdown in the VNS exit poll system forced executives, producers and anchors in network newsrooms to scramble to implement back-up plans for the night's election programming.

"There's no sin in actually counting votes," said CNN anchor Aaron Brown. "So if we all have to hang back and see what actually happened, there's inherent drama in that too."

"It's actually kind of refreshing," said David King, a Harvard University professor of public policy who has studied the VNS operation. "It makes the election experience more genuine. Now, they actually have to wait for real numbers, as opposed to statistical samples from questionable sources."

"In 2000, we took heat -- and rightfully so because we projected incorrectly," said Barbara Levin, communications director for NBC News. "In 2002, we're taking our time because we want to get it right."

"In the races that are particularly tight, we'll have to proceed much more cautiously because we have to rely on the raw vote," she said. The exit polls not only identify whom voters cast their ballots for but provide information about voters that help analysts call an election.

Some networks were, nonetheless, projecting winners based on their own analysis of the vote in precincts. But the glitch clearly slowed down projections.

A representative of each of the media outlets that make up VNS -- Fox News Channel, ABC, NBC, CBS, Associated Press and CNN -- learned about the problem while huddled around their speakerphones Tuesday afternoon.

"We got the report from the statisticians that the computers were having problems compiling the votes," said Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News. "There was no debate, even. We just said no."

VNS had dispatched 30,000 staffers to precincts all over the country, armed with a toll-free phone number to VNS headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a schedule to call in three times with fresh data. Their accounts from precincts in schools, homes and firehouses were fed into the system. But the analysis didn't look right, said Ted Savaglio, VNS executive director.

"If a number looks much larger than it's ever been in the past, then you know," he said. "You have expectations and some basis on which to base the results."

In the days leading up to the election, VNS had been consistent and clear that its goal was to be bug-free by the presidential election in 2004. VNS representatives candidly said that if things went smoothly on this election day, it would be a bonus -- but they weren't counting on it.

"We were prepared for the possibility that the processing and compilation of the exit poll data would not be satisfactory in order for us to publish," Savaglio said.

ABC News executives actually planned for VNS to stumble.

"In anticipation of this, we relied on our own field reports and Associated Press tabulation of raw vote," said spokeswoman Cathie Levine. "Our goal all night was to be 100% accurate and reliable."

CBS also planned its coverage more cautiously.

"We have known that with VNS halfway through a four-year complete overhaul that this was a possibility, so we planned accordingly," said CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. "VNS was always going to be one tool we were going to use on election night, but we still have plenty of others."

At the bunting-bedecked CNN newsroom in Atlanta, the breakdown in the VNS exit poll system was "breaking news."

Out the window were plans to open each hour of programming with projected winners, based on the exit poll data. Producers who normally would have been crunching exit poll data to discern trends in preparation for the first poll closings were unusually calm.

CNN relied on a backup system of more than 600 workers it stationed at a sampling of precincts in 10 key states to report as vote counts were posted.

"I love election night," exclaimed CNN News Group Chairman Walter Isaacson as he watched CNN's Jeff Greenfield announce the VNS problem on air. "This makes life more interesting, and there's an upside: We get to wait for the counting of real votes and watch elections unfold. I think it will be educational for the nation."

Jensen reported from Atlanta, Calvo from Los Angeles and Simon from Washington. 

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