- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2004

The networks have vowed caution tonight, adhering to a strict new set of standards meant to discourage eager broadcasters from dramatically declaring early winners to garner high ratings and big audiences.

No one wants a repeat of the 2000 presidential race.

Two years in the making, the National Election Pool (NEP) has arrived, boasting overhauled computer systems, stringent vote-counting and polling techniques, multiple safeguards and assurances that no victors will be projected in any race until the last polling precinct is shut up tight.

The NEP replaces the Voter News Service, the old consortium consisting of ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, the Associated Press and pollsters. It foundered four years ago when four of the networks prematurely announced Al Gore had become president, based on erroneous and incomplete voting results.

The new pool has promised fact-based methodology. The onus, however, is on the networks.

“A dose of humility is not a bad thing. We learned a lot in 2000 and again in 2002, when we realized the system was not foolproof. Maybe we won’t make the call first — but I don’t really care,” said David Bohrman, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “We’ve simply got a lot of faith in the new organization.”

Still, the network will provide a dozen of their own statistical analysts and a legal team, plus a snappy delivery of all those numbers: CNN will flash real-time voting data on a 96-screen video wall behind celebrity news anchors in a studio above New York’s Times Square.

“If we’re not comfortable with the data we get, we won’t make the calls. The most important thing of all is to get the information right. Being fast and first is nice, but being correct is best,” said Thom Bird, executive producer at Fox News.

It is a far cry from days of yore: Few will forget CBS anchorman Dan Rather’s brassy guarantee on the night of Nov. 7, 2000: “If we say somebody’s carried a state, you can pretty much take it to the bank.”

This year, CBS News election analyst Linda Mason said her network will get the voter data right in an “exciting night, and a very long one.”

Meanwhile, NBC has promised an “abundance of caution before calling any race” and “much more detailed information.”

The newfangled NEP actually consists of the same old VNS consortium. It is a chastened one, however, with a cast of thousands.

The very earliest “guess estimate” for the winner of the presidential race will not be issued until sometime between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. according to the Associated Press, which will be responsible for actually tabulating votes.

According to new guidelines, the AP will employ 5,000 “stringers” to report from regional election centers, phoning in the raw vote to 16 collection centers once the first polls close tonight at 6 p.m. in Indiana and Kentucky. Some 450 “vote-entry clerks” will then feed the numbers into state and national election tables — the main resource for newspapers and networks alike.

The count will “taper down” at 4 a.m. tomorrow, then at 9 a.m. “to chase down the final results and obtain 100 percent of the votes.” The count will also be continually compared with historical data and existing voting patterns to detect discrepancies or inconsistencies.

Even the best-laid plans can go awry, and the consortium knows it.

“There is no way to guarantee that a mistake in identifying a winner will not happen again,” the NEP said. “If it does, the public can be assured that the mistake will be publicly acknowledged and corrected as soon as possible.”

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