networks' election-night debacle of incorrect victory calls last
November, there was an unprecedented period of self-flagellation.
All the networks commissioned internal studies about what went
wrong. So did Voter News Service, the maligned polling and
vote tabulation consortium funded by ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox and the
Associated Press. Fox and NBC went the furthest, threatening last
November not to renew their contracts with VNS unless there were
reforms that would 'ensure the accuracy and integrity of the data,'
according to NBC.
So much for the tough talk. According to network news executives,
all of the networks are expected to remain in the VNS consortium,
with an announcement expected as soon as Friday. Starting a
competiting or alternative polling operation was simply too
expensive to consider, several of them said.
Although many network executives accepted some measure of blame
for the mishandled election results, citing competitive pressure to
call the new President before rivals, much of the focus on what went
wrong fell on VNS. Founded in 1990, the consortium was designed to
save the networks money on the costly task of exit polling and vote
gathering across the nation. But in their reports, the networks said
that VNS had outmoded equipment, inaccurate statistical processes
and not enough quality control to ensure an accurate count in a
Most network executives say that the silver bullet solution for
these problems is more money. VNS had an operating budget of $33
million for the entire election cycle split equally among the
members, according to a CNN post-mortem election report. (An
additional $2 million was provided to the service by other
subscribers, such as local television stations.) While all of
networks have publicly committed to contributing more to VNS, they
have not yet decided on dollar figures. 'We're looking at the
budgets and what can be done, but there are no final decisions,'
said a network news source.
So far, the members have only agreed to change the staffing on
the VNS board of directors. Prior to 2000, it was composed of
representatives from the election units of each network and focused
on day-to-day concerns. Now, network vice-presidents will sit on the
board and set broad-based policies.
On the list of fixes is replacing the old VNS mainframe computer
system and software with more flexible and faster contemporary
equipment. Statistical improvements will include more absentee
voting in the model. According to Warren Mitofsky, a polling
consultant for CNN and CBS, the VNS computations were based on
models devised between 1967 and 1990, which didn't account for the
same levels of absentee voting. Those votes used to comprise only
about 3 percent of the national tally, but have increased due to
more liberal voting laws. For example, 12 percent of Florida voters
submitted absentee ballots in the last election.
Other enhancements will include mechanisms designed to catch data
entry blunders. In the last election, the VNS was slow to correct a
20,000 vote error in Florida's Volusia County that overstated George
W. Bush's lead over Al Gore. Instead of having a race too close to
call, the networks saw the inflated total and projected the state of
Florida for Bush around 2:00 a.m. on election night. At 2:51 a.m.,
VNS corrected the error. 'It's hard to process millions of votes in
precincts and towns throughout the country without an error,' said
Mitofsky. 'A more sophisticated mechanism will help catch obvious
Even though everyone agrees on the need to make these fixes, the
big question is how much money the networks will actually spend.
After all, VNS was founded as a cost-cutting measure. In its own
internal investigation, which was obtained by the Washington Post,
VNS said that budget limitations, such as not having enough to spend
on telephone polling to estimate the size of the absentee vote,
'made the task of covering elections far more difficult than
necessary.' The CBS report pointed to the difficulties of increasing
the VNS budget. Because the costs are borne equally and the budget
must pass unanimously, CBS wrote, 'the most frugal members sets the
limit on how much VNS can spend. And when its budget is limited, VNS
must limit what it can do.'
Right after the election, a few of the networks raised the
possibility of forming an alternative polling organization to either
compete or work in tandem with VNS. That would have provided another
data source so all the networks wouldn't rely on the same set of
numbers and could avoid group catastrophic mistakes. CNN's report
said, 'It is a general convention of good journalistic practice to
seek more than one source for information to be reported, when that
information is controversial and open to different interpretations.
We believe there should be at least one competitive source available
for both exit polling and vote counting.'
That step would have been supported by a variety of public
interest groups crying for post-election reforms. Some raised the
possibility that the VNS agreement between the networks may violate
antitrust laws. The decision to keep VNS intact has upset some
critics. 'I'm not all that surprised, given that in the end it's all
about money, but I'm still disappointed,' said Gary Hill,
co-chair of the Society for Professional Journalists ethics
committee. Hill had pushed for an alternative-polling consortium to
VNS. While he admitted that funding another organization would be
expensive, he suspected that the cost would be worth in it lieu of
the Florida fiasco. 'What did it cost the networks in credibility?'
he asked. 'If they could buy it back with a like sum of money,
But any alternative to VNS was impractical with network news
budgets being cut along with the huge expense of either polling
alone or forming a VNS competitor. And privately, some network
executives argue that the last election was a freak occurrence. VNS
representatives have publicly stated that the organization has only
a 1-in-200 chance of error and until last November, the results
reflected it. 'In the ten years since the pool began, there had been
only been one error in calling an election,' says Mitofsky. 'VNS has
done a pretty good job with elections.'