Voter News Service, an elections consortium of six media organizations, is developing and testing a new system to count votes that will be running for November's midterm elections, VNS officials say.

The member organizations — ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and The Associated Press — reviewed the changes at a board meeting last week.

VNS began work on the new system after its information was used in making wrong calls on the presidential election in 2000.

VNS counts votes and conducts election place polling, using the material to help its members project winners. The consortium hired Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio-based company, to help build a new system after its members decided against scrapping VNS entirely. VNS had been in touch with Battelle about updating its service even before the 2000 election.

The AP conducts its own vote count, independent of VNS, and for the first time the VNS computer system will have the AP material available as a backup to its own data.

The new system will also take better account of absentee voting, which was considered a key weakness in making projections in Florida in 2000, said Ted Savaglio, VNS executive director.

"It has been a complex project, but it seems to be coming along pretty well,'' Bill Wheatley, executive vice president of NBC News, said Friday. "It's in testing now and the board has pretty much been told that it should be up and running and functioning by this November.''

The upcoming midterm election shapes up as a dramatic one, with control of both houses of Congress in doubt. Nonetheless, for VNS it may be a less complicated event than in 2000 — a quadrennial election year that featured presidential balloting in every state.

The Nov. 7, 2000, election proved to be a chaotic one for VNS and its members in determining the winner of the close presidential race. Florida was the key. All VNS members initially projected Democrat Al Gore had won Florida, then rescinded the call many hours before the election came to a climax. 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. However, his lead vanished as the vote count came to an end that morning, and Bush wasn't declared the winner until recounts and legal skirmishing settled matters fully five weeks later.

There has been some concern by people following VNS about its readiness for the upcoming election.

"It's a big, complicated project and there are a lot of people involved,'' Savaglio said. "Some people have their opinions, but ours is that we're confident'' the system will be ready in November.

Still, he said, rebuilding VNS' operations is a four-year project, and this is year two.

"VNS has worked closely with Battelle to develop an up-to-date elections system, with one goal in mind — providing the public with accurate and reliable information,'' said Jonathan Wolman, senior vice president of the AP. "We're encouraged by the testing so far, but no one is pretending the system is good to go today.''

Wheatley said he expects news organizations, with the 2000 experience in mind, to be conservative this November in making projections, "not because they don't have faith in the models, but because they want to be sure there's no possibility of error.''