Let voter projections fade away

January 13, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Probably among the least regretted year-end news of 2002 was word from the Associated Press and television networks that they may scrap their joint election-night use of computers to explain how Americans vote and why.

The collapse Nov. 5 of the Voter News Service, the monster they created rather than wait for the ballots to be tabulated, has caused the news moguls to reconsider whether the millions they spent were worth all the frustration and embarrassment.

You may remember how the network anchormen, ginned up for their usual computer-aided clairvoyance on election night, were left in the lurch as the computations based on sample precincts and exit polls of voters went haywire.

Rather than bluffing their way through with inadequate data, as some of them were pressed to do in past elections, or calling their outcomes wrong, as happened most conspicuously in Florida in 2000, the network pontificators Nov. 5 agreed to fall on their swords.

As embarrassing as it was for the networks, the candor was refreshing, and the absence of reliable breakdowns on how various voting blocs cast their ballots and why did not result in the destruction of the republic.

The Voter News Service - the vote-gathering consortium of the AP, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox - was created in 1993 ostensibly to pool resources, reduce the guesswork involved in election "projections" and otherwise provide a greater veneer of authenticity to election "results" before they really were results.

The network moguls denied that a driving force in simply not waiting was competition among the nets. "Declaring" this or that state for this or that candidate while vote tabulations were still going on was obviously a lure for a larger viewership, even if proved wrong.

Two years ago, network executives were summoned by the House Energy and Commerce Committee and asked what they intended to do about the Florida fiasco of 2000, in which the nets "called" the state first for Al Gore, then for George W. Bush and finally for neither.

They responded essentially that they would keep doing what they had done, only spend more money doing it. More sample precincts would be used and more exit polls conducted the next time, and the networks would wait until after the voting booths had closed in a state before reporting their "results."

That's what they did in 2002, and while the network anchormen did "call" the states for congressional and gubernatorial winners in the midterm elections, they were severely handicapped by the massive computer glitch in saying why they won and who voted for them.

Miraculously, nobody perished as a result, even political junkies dying to hear those breakdowns in voting patterns. News organizations that wanted to find out how special voting groups like left-handed brunettes of Swiss extraction between ages 18 and 35 had cast their ballots could just ask them the next day or two.

The upgraded VNS system that crashed Nov. 5 is reported to have cost between $8 million and $12 million, which may be peanuts to the networks. But it could have bought quite a few more reliable voting machines, which many states are still scrambling to acquire.

The election night 2002 failure of computerized voter crystal-balling, on the heels of the Florida fiasco of 2000, may finally convince the TV networks to go back to counting actual ballots, even if it means not being able to explain the whys of voter behavior in prime time. But viewer ratings competition being what it is, don't bet the rent on it.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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