Flubs put spotlight on how networks call elections
NEW YORK (AP) -- Formed to help TV networks quickly report and explain election results, Voter News Service now stands at the center of one of television's most embarrassing moments in years.
The little-known company that provides news organizations with exit poll information and election returns is being scrutinized after the networks' double-barreled mistake in the presidential race: prematurely declaring Al Gore the winner in Florida and then George W. Bush several hours later. More than a week later, the real results are still in doubt.
Fox News Channel founder and CEO Roger Ailes has already said he wants to replace the consortium set up by ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and The Associated Press with more than one service.
"As far as I'm concerned," CBS anchor Dan Rather said to radio commentator Don Imus about VNS, "we have to knock it down to absolute ground zero, plow it under with salt, put a barbed-wire fence around it, quarantine it for a few years and start off with something new."
VNS projected Florida for Gore early on election night, and all six of its media members did, too. VNS did not call the race for Bush; five of its six members did, some citing numbers provided by VNS. The AP never called the race for Bush.
VNS has issued two public statements but would not make its executives available for comment.
"There's a congressional investigation, there's a lawsuit pending," said VNS editorial director Murray Edelman. "It's a pretty inflamed subject right now," he said, and VNS doesn't want to "pour any more kerosene on it."
VNS traces its roots to the mid-1960s, when the News Election Service was formed to help the networks, AP and United Press International conduct vote tallies. Voter Research & Surveys was created in 1990 for the TV networks to share the costs of exit polling and projections. AP and UPI were not involved in VRS.
The two services merged as VNS in 1993. Based in New York, it has about 30 permanent employees.
On Election Day, VNS, using temporary workers in every state, conducted exit polls in about 1,400 precincts, transmitting findings to its members in waves that afternoon and evening. Voters were asked, for example, who they selected for president and what issues mattered most in their decision.
When actual votes began coming in, VNS checked results in more than 3,500 precincts scientifically selected to predict final results.
Forty-five of those exit poll locations and 110 sample precincts were in Florida, and the first word from them pointed in the direction of a Gore victory. Exit poll information alone showed Gore in the lead by 6.5 percentage points. The first voting results indicated the Gore exit poll lead might even have been understated, said Warren Mitofsky, a polling expert who founded Voter Research & Surveys and consulted with CNN and CBS on election night.
At 7:52 p.m., VNS declared Gore the winner in Florida.
At the time, VNS was relying on exit poll information from 38 of its precincts and actual votes from 12 locations. Sheldon Gawiser, NBC's director of elections, said the data indicated there was a one in 1,000 chance that Gore wouldn't win.
"All of the evidence was pointing toward a Gore call -- all of it," agreed Kathleen Frankovic, director of surveys at CBS.
None of the news organizations that use VNS make calls strictly through what it says; all have their own systems that take into account such factors as past voting histories in states.
Frankovic and Gawiser are in charge at their networks, Carolyn Smith and Tom Hannon at CNN. John Ellis -- Bush's first cousin -- was the election team director at Fox News Channel, although the network said executive John Moody made the final calls. The AP's system involves election analysts and state bureau chiefs.
The call for Gore was unanimous among the networks and the AP.
"The exit poll gave Gore a small lead but no member nor VNS thought that it was enough to call the race with confidence," VNS said in a statement. "However, when reports of actual vote from sample or model precincts came in, they supported the survey results and allowed the race to be called."
By around 9 p.m., additional returns were making some analysts nervous and Bush himself was questioning the call. CNN put Florida in the undecided category at 9:50 p.m. and others followed suit. VNS retracted its Gore projection at 10:13 p.m.
Some VNS members have theorized that the company underestimated the number of Bush votes coming in through absentee ballots or that the sample precincts were poorly chosen.
"The sample as a whole is too Democratic and we need to find out what that means," Gawiser said.
Although VNS said in a statement that the sampling precinct models "have served us well through many elections," the company said it will investigate why they didn't work this time.
By the time midnight passed and it became evident that Florida would likely decide the next president, exit poll information was replaced by actual results in the data VNS sent by computer to its members.
Fox News Channel was the first to declare Bush the victor in Florida at 2:16 a.m. ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN had all done so by 2:20. The AP, relying on analysis that showed significant votes were still unreported from heavily Democratic counties, never made that call.
Neither did VNS. But networks said they used information provided by VNS in making the premature determination that Bush had won.
The experts said VNS's computer tabulations were flashing numbers that made a Gore victory seem virtually impossible. Gawiser said they showed Bush with a 55,000 vote lead with only 102,000 votes left to be counted.
Both those numbers proved to be wrong. Shortly after the networks called the race, word came in that because of a computer glitch in Volusia County, Bush's lead had been overestimated by nearly 25,000 votes. The projection of the total uncounted vote also proved to be too low.
Frankovic and Mitofsky say they're not sure what happened, if VNS should be held accountable for passing along bad information or if county officials reported bad numbers used by the service.
"I think it's probably a rush to judgment to blame VNS immediately," Frankovic said.
VNS said the Bush call was made "solely on the basis of the tabulated vote indicating that Bush appeared to have a sufficient lead to say with confidence that he had won. As the remaining votes were tabulated, that lead dropped dramatically and the members felt that even though Bush was still ahead, the responsible thing to do was to withdraw the call."
Network representatives have stressed that they made their own independent judgments to declare Florida for Bush, even though five of them made the same call within five minutes of each other.
"Obviously, when you have competition, you can always assume there is more urgency to do something," Mitofsky said.
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