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American Journalism Review
Chad Weren’t Left Dangling, Networks Were  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   December 2002

Chad Weren’t Left Dangling, Networks Were   

The latest troubles for the exit polling service, Voter New Service

By Steve Ritea
Ritea is a reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune     


By most accounts, Voter News Service, the consortium whose elaborate exit-polling system flubbed projections in the 2000 presidential race and broke down again November 5 despite a multimillion-dollar overhaul, should stop trying to count votes and start counting something else: how many thousands of dollars it must now refund to dozens of network and newspaper subscribers.

A computer glitch that caused VNS to pull the plug on most of its services at 5 p.m. on election night may have already cost it some weighty customers.

"If you're in the business to provide that information and you only do it every two years and then you don't deliver it after you accept people's money, that kind of raises the question of are people going to pay for it again," says James O'Shea, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. "I question whether I will."

VNS was born in 1993 out of a joint decision by major TV networks to pool their resources and share an exit-polling system, which is also offered to paid subscribers. For years, the networks largely relied upon this on big election nights to call races before the official ballot counts came in. All was well until two years ago, when flawed data and an underestimation of the number of absentee ballots in Florida led VNS and the networks to falsely declare that first Al Gore, then George W. Bush, had won the state (See "How They Blew It," January/February 2001). In the months following that debacle, VNS began a four-year, $10 million to $15 million overhaul of its computer system.

VNS spokeswoman Eileen Murphy says the consortium warned subscribers several days before the election that it was only halfway into the upgrade "and we were aware we might end up with a situation where things might not work properly." Then, a few hours before polls closed, newsrooms got an e-mail bearing the bad news.

"I can't tell you specifically that people screamed and yelled," Murphy says, but "yeah, I think knowing you weren't going to have it was frustrating."

Major networks wary of relying too heavily on VNS since 2000 did telephone polls of likely voters the weekend before Election Day--something several news executives referred to as "insurance policies." Nonetheless, there's a measurable advantage to quizzing voters on their way out of the voting booth as opposed to calling them three days before an election. "There's no substitute for actual voters," says ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin.

One of the most valuable things VNS provided was demographic information about who was turning out and what was on their minds--information, O'Shea says, "which is frankly always more valuable than the results."

"What you didn't see on election night was the analysis in a particular state based on were women turning out, were union people turning out," NBC News spokeswoman Barbara Levin says.

New York Times spokeswoman Kathy J. Park says because of VNS' failure, Times readers had to do without "some of the richness of detail about who voted and how voters were motivated."

Although VNS was able to provide raw vote totals in a number of races, many networks didn't even bother using the scraps they were offered. "At one point in the evening, the VNS vote count data was lagging behind the AP," Levin says.

VNS plans to issue refund checks. And Murphy asks customers to be patient, saying, "We expect these problems will all be fixed."

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