Networks Determined to Avoid 2000 Mistake

Determined to avoid a repeat of high-profile failures in 2000 and 2002, television networks will rely on new systems on Nov. 2 to help project election winners and analyze why voters made their choices. And they have turned to The Associated Press to count the vote for them.

The six news organizations that have formed the National Election Pool (search) — ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX News Channel and the AP — say they're confident things will go better this time, based on test runs and the experience of people involved.

Still, the TV networks said they would be careful projecting winners after prematurely declaring Florida, and the 2000 election, for George W. Bush. (The AP did not declare Bush the winner on election night). The election wasn't ultimately determined for weeks after vote recounts and court fights.

"We're just going to really, really be cautious," said Marty Ryan, FOX News Channel's executive producer for political coverage. "When we think we have it, we'll wait a few minutes and look again. Then we'll wait a few minutes and look again."

The networks blamed Voter News Service (search), the company they had formed to count votes and conduct exit polls, for faulty data that led to the wrong calls in 2000. VNS tried to rebuild its system, but it broke down on election night 2002 and failed to provide usable exit polling information. VNS was then disbanded.

This time, the news organizations contracted with two veteran polling companies — Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research (search) — to conduct exit polls. They agreed that the AP — which has been tallying votes in elections since 1848 — would be their sole source for vote counts, and the news cooperative has significantly beefed up its system in response.

Each of the organizations will use data provided by NEP to make its own projections election night. The organizations also have promised, for the first time in a presidential election, not to call states that span two time zones until all of the polling places have closed.

One flaw exposed in 2000 — the failure of VNS to account for the increased use of absentee ballots — has been corrected, said Linda Mason of CBS News, an NEP spokeswoman. Telephone surveys of people voting by absentee ballots will be conducted in 13 states this year, instead of just three.

Mason said two other technical adjustments were made to increase reliability: NEP will conduct exit polling in more voter precincts and have access to a greater number of past vote counts to use on a comparison basis.

"The things that clearly went wrong four years ago, it's hard to imagine them going wrong again with what they've done with this system," said David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief.

Both the exit polls and vote counts worked with no serious problems during the 2004 primaries and in stress tests, network officials said. Full dress rehearsals will be conducted on Oct. 23 and 30.

Several networks promised to do a better job explaining to viewers how they make projections and even to assign correspondents to their decision desks. ABC has increased training given to its election night team, and CNN is hiring its own statistical analysts to pore over data.

"Every election is different," said Bill Wheatley, NBC News vice president. "In this one, we're cognizant of the fact that additional absentee ballots are being cast, registration levels are up and there may be additional disputes over the reliability of voting machines. We'll factor all of these into our deliberations."

Four years ago, the networks relied on VNS for its count of the actual votes and used the AP's vote-counting as a backup. Now, the AP will go it alone.

The AP will have stringers calling in results from each of the nation's 4,600 counties. Hundreds of people will be assigned to input the information into computers, and others will monitor the systems to guard against problems. In all, a total of about 5,500 people will be working on AP's vote count on election night.

"We have real confidence in the reliability of the AP's vote count," said Kathleen Carroll, AP senior vice president and executive editor. "We also have enormous confidence in the journalists in the field and the bureau chiefs who will be using the data and their experience when they call winners in the race."

The AP relied on that experience on election night 2000 to resist calling the election for Bush, despite enormous pressure after the networks had made their projections.

Most of the AP election night staff has done the job before, said Tom Jory, the cooperative's director of elections tabulations. The AP also has built in new system redundancies to protect against computer or telephone system failures, he said.

Precautions are being taken to guard against human error as well. Using past elections as a guide, the AP's computer system is designed to spit out a warning if figures are entered that are significantly at odds with expected patterns — just to make sure the numbers are rechecked.

"The AP has a long history of doing these things in general," said Dan Merkle, ABC News decision desk director. "With these other improvements, we feel very confident in the AP."