- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The old Voter News Service that caused such a ruckus in the 2000 presidential election has been reinvented.

Five television networks have signed agreements with the Associated Press to provide vote-tabulation services starting with the 2004 presidential primaries, AP announced yesterday.

“ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News Channel said AP will provide continuous running election-night returns on presidential, gubernatorial and congressional races, as well as selected statewide ballot propositions, under contracts that run through 2008,” AP said in a statement.

Until the 2000 presidential election, most Americans had never heard of Voter News Service, a polling and voter-analysis group originally founded as Voter Research & Surveys in 1990 by veteran pollster Warren Mitofsky and four networks. Their goal was to save time and money by pooling resources.

The group became Voter News Service three years later.

The foundations were sound enough. Mr. Mitofsky more or less invented the exit-poll genre while working for CBS News back in 1967. These preliminary voter surveys have provided fodder for breathless election night predictions so dear to the anchormen’s heart.

But something went wrong in the Bush vs. Gore bout.

After a decade of competence, VNS failed famously that election night, supplying faulty numbers to the five major networks and AP.

Its erroneous calls — especially when it declared Al Gore the winner in Florida before changing its call to George W. Bush and then to “too close to call” — rattled voter confidence and put press credibility in question.

The failure also changed the face of election night coverage. Chastened networks vowed accuracy, rather than being “first” with pivotal but possibly flawed results.

But during midterm elections in November, a newly overhauled computer system also failed, causing VNS to disband in January, with promises that new alternatives were “forthcoming.”

Four months later, the new alternatives include a larger role for AP on election night. Previously, the news service provided an independent vote count to back up the old VNS tabulations, and provided results in thousands of state and local election races that VNS did not cover.

In the next election, the onus will be on AP to supply broadcasters as well.

“The TV networks require information faster and with more frequency than anyone else,” said AP spokesman Jack Stokes. “This service is designed to accommodate the breadth and depth of the information which has to be delivered.”

The scope of it is “awesome,” said Mr. Stokes, adding that a computerized system will deliver the goods in “real time.”

Meanwhile, exit polls will be taken by Mitofsky International — directed by Mr. Mitofsky — and Edison Media, where he is director of media research.

“This looks like AP will be doing what it did before, but they’ve dressed it up a little,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “It looks like they’ll be dealing in information only. I don’t see any indications they intend to make forecasts or projections here. That’s where the problems started for the VNS consortium.”

The new agreement comes just in the nick of time, perhaps.

In January, one network source said that “Election 2004 is just around the corner. We are running out of time.”

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