Voter News Service was forced to abandon state and national exit polls designed to help analyze Tuesday's midterm election results and also saw its vote-counting operation slow to a crawl.
The failures were a major setback for VNS — a consortium consisting of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN and The Associated Press. VNS had completely rebuilt 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.
CBS 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.
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 Associated Press. "Polling place interviews provide an invaluable glimpse at voters' mood and priorities."
As in the past, AP was calling election winners in a process that involves an analysis of the actual vote returns, Wolman said. "Our emphasis is on accuracy and we're confident we'll provide a strong service tonight."
In addition, AP reporters around the country conduct their own interviews with voters on Election Day to gather quotes to enrich their stories. This material, though not a scientific survey, helps give readers some insight into how individual voters made their decisions.
The consortium did have limited information from the exit poll surveys that gave its members guidance in projecting winners for individual races.
The VNS exit poll was of particular importance to broadcasters and 19 newspapers, including The New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today, that had contracted with the consortium to receive that information to report on Election Day trends.
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.
At midnight, he said, "We're catching up."
In response to the 2000 problems, VNS agreed to provide to all of its members other vote counts conducted by the AP. CBS and NBC said they were using the AP numbers exclusively. ABC said it was using both vote counts and had no complaints with this part of the VNS operation.
In the weeks heading up to Election Day, VNS was never able to work out the bugs in the portion of the exit poll used to glean detailed information on how people felt about issues and how certain groups voted.
VNS said the exit poll information was being collected but not being properly analyzed by the organization's new computer system.
VNS had other problems: computer screens briefly froze when workers phoned in exit poll information, and more people than expected failed to call with completed questionnaires, Savaglio said.
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.
"Everyone's disappointed not to have exit polls," Schneider said. "That said, the most important thing is ensuring that we put out accurate and reliable information."
Angered by the networks' performance in the 2000 election, Congress brought news media organizations to Washington to explain their performance and was watching to see if there was a repeat this year.
Bill Wheatley, executive vice president of NBC News, said there was still a possibility that the exit poll data would be available in the next few days. Meanwhile, NBC and CBS planned to use the results of their own joint poll of voter attitudes conducted last weekend using the same survey questions as VNS.
"This was a mid-term for (VNS), also, literally," said MSNBC editor-in-chief Jerry Nachman. "This was going to be the night for them to trouble-shoot and fine-tune the process that everyone expects to be perfect in 2004."
While a disappointment, Savaglio said VNS' plans were ambitious. In addition to providing information useful for stories, VNS had hoped the exit poll operation would be working to provide a test run for the 2004 presidential election.