By: David Bauder, AP Television Writer
(AP) The debut of Voter News Service’s rebuilt system ran into severe problems, as the consortium was unable to deliver exit polls designed to help explain results and struggled to count the vote quickly.
The failures in Tuesday’s midterm elections were a major setback for VNS — a consortium consisting of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, and The Associated Press. VNS had completely overhauled its system in response to the 2000 election, when television networks twice used its information to make wrong calls in the decisive Florida vote for the presidency.
The exit poll information was intended to help media organizations explain why people voted as they did. But because of technical problems, VNS said it could not guarantee the accuracy of its information and did not release it.
“We’re disappointed that VNS wasn’t able to provide this material,” said Jonathan Wolman, senior vice president of the AP. “Polling place interviews provide an invaluable glimpse at voters’ mood and priorities.”
The VNS exit poll was of particular importance to broadcasters and 19 newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today, that had contracted with the consortium to receive that information to report on Election Day trends.
VNS was able to provide limited information from the exit poll surveys that gave its members guidance in projecting winners for individual races.
As in the past, AP called election winners in a process that involved an analysis of actual vote returns.
VNS’ separate vote-counting operation started the evening well, but an automated system overloaded and caused delays, said Ted Savaglio, VNS executive director. “It’s functioning and it’s running, but it’s not running at peak efficiency,” he said late Tuesday night. At midnight, he said, “We’re catching up.”
CBS, CNN, and NBC complained that vote totals were coming in so slowly that they stopped using the VNS count. Instead, they relied on a backup operation provided by the AP. ABC said it was using both vote counts and had no complaints with this part of the VNS operation.
ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said the network had prepared for the possibility that VNS would not be ready on Election Night. It put the emphasis on “good, old-fashioned reporting” to tell what happens, he said.
Fox, anticipating possible problems with the exit polls, had arranged to conduct Election Day telephone polls of voters in 10 states with key races for Senate or governor, and used some of those findings on the air.
Bill Wheatley, executive vice president of NBC News, said there was still a possibility that the VNS exit poll data would be available in the next few days. Meanwhile, NBC and CBS had conducted their own joint poll of voter attitudes last weekend using the same survey questions as VNS.
“This was a midterm for (VNS), also, literally,” said MSNBC editor-in-chief Jerry Nachman. “This was going to be the night for them to troubleshoot and fine-tune the process that everyone expects to be perfect in 2004.”
CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson said his network was relying on political reporters across the country to provide texture for its coverage. “There is a good side to it, which is we’ll have a great lesson in civics as people watch real votes being counted,” he said.
Angered by the networks’ performance in the 2000 election, Congress brought news media organizations to Washington last year to explain their performance and was watching to see if there was a repeat this year.
VNS hired Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio-based company, to help build a new system after its members decided against scrapping VNS entirely. VNS had been in touch with Battelle about updating its service even before the 2000 election.