News Agencies Test Their Vote-Count Systems

With two weeks to go until Election Day, Voter News Service is testing its new exit polling and vote-counting system, while its members are cautiously crafting backup plans, mindful of problems they encountered two years ago.

The latest test run over the weekend by VNS with its six media members — ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and The Associated Press — made its executive director "cautiously optimistic.''

Still, the new system and fresh memories of botched calls on election night 2000 are likely to make news organizations more restrained in their pronouncements on Nov. 5.

That means it may take longer for the night's stories to emerge and key story lines, like control of the House and Senate, may remain unclear until well after prime time.

"Every member of VNS will be extra cautious this time around, given what happened in 2000 and given that we have a new system,'' said Bill Wheatley, executive vice president of NBC News.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward said CBS has "realistic expectations,'' noting that the reform of VNS was always meant to be a four-year process to be ready for the 2004 election.

Any information that CBS doesn't have complete confidence in, "we're not going to use,'' Heyward said.

"The new VNS system is undergoing a daily stress test so we can be sure it's ready for election night,'' said Jonathan Wolman, senior vice president for the AP. "The clock is ticking toward Nov. 5, and it's essential to work out any kinks.''

As in previous elections, AP will conduct an independent vote count that is available in case VNS falters, Wolman noted, and also will operate an analytical desk that calls election winners.

VNS counts votes and conducts exit polling at election places, and that information is used by its members to project winners. After the problems of 2000, the media organizations decided to build a new system instead of scrapping VNS.

For the first time, the VNS computer system will make the AP's vote count available to all members as a backup for its data.

While not a presidential election like 2000, next month's midterm election will be closely watched, since control of both houses of Congress is at stake.

"Overall, I'm pleased that we're making the progress we're making,'' said Ted Savaglio, VNS executive director. "I would have expected as we approached the election that our rehearsals would be more intense, so I'm cautiously optimistic.''

Savaglio said VNS is confident of its vote-counting operation. The exit polling system needs more work, however, and will undergo more extensive testing this weekend, he said.

"There doesn't seem to be any cause for alarm,'' said Wheatley of NBC. "The testing process continues. If it should develop that there are any problems with the exit polling, we will not use that data.''

ABC News President David Westin said he wanted to see the results of more tests.

"It's too early to say it's all fixed and ready to go,'' Westin said.

VNS' problems in 2000 were focused on the presidential vote count in Florida. All VNS members initially projected Democrat Al Gore as the Florida winner early in the evening, then rescinded the call. Shortly after 2 a.m. EST the next morning, five VNS members — all except the AP — declared George W. Bush the winner in Florida and nationwide.

Subsequent vote counts put that result in doubt, and Bush wasn't declared the winner until the U.S. Supreme Court settled the matter after five weeks of recounts and legal battles.

CNN will debut its own backup system, based on samples from key precincts in about 10 states with particularly close races, said Walter Isaacson, CNN chairman. He did not provide an estimate on how much CNN spent on its system.

CBS also has built its own system, but Heyward said he would not provide details about it for competitive reasons.

The networks all said they would be more "transparent'' to viewers, explaining their sources of information and why races are being called. CNN has assigned a reporter to its own projections desk.

"We made promises that we'd be more careful and have backup systems in place, so we're being more careful and will have backup systems in place,'' Isaacson said.

Heyward said television viewers "will be on the factory floor, not just in the showroom.''

Westin said ABC viewers may experience something of a throwback to the past on election night.

"I think there will be in all likelihood more traditional political reporting, from reporters speaking to sources about these races, and fewer figures and graphics,'' he said.