Voter News Service: What Went Wrong?

In November 2000, a “perfect storm” of vote-counting miscues and polling problems led the major TV networks repeatedly to change their minds as to whether Al Gore or George Bush was the next president. In November 2002, a second storm whipped through the networks’ election broadcasts.

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Unfinished and mismanaged efforts to update the computer systems used by Voter News Service forced executives at the consortium’s owners—ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC and the Associated Press—to abandon the use of exit polling data before it even got all collected. Indeed, by mid-January the failures led to the disbanding of VNS itself. On Jan. 13, the six organizations said only that they were “collectively reviewing a number of strong options” to avoid another fiasco in the future.

Back up to Election Day, Nov. 5. The balance of power in Congress was up for grabs. Yet by 10 a.m., the TV networks confirmed what they had feared for months: They couldn’t derive any meaningful exit-polling data from a system they had just spent between $10 million and $15 million to overhaul.

Disasters were almost comical. Many of the more than 30,000 temporary workers collecting exit-poll information were disconnected from VNS’ new voice-recognition system before they could finish inputting data over the phone. Some poll workers were unable to access the system at all. Live operators weren’t always a help, as the phone system periodically crashed under the crush of callers dialing in.

Using computers was not much of an alternative. News organizations and other VNS subscribers were repeatedly instructed to log off their machines, so the new servers running BEA Systems’ WebLogic application server could be rebooted.

When users finally were able to access the system, they quickly discovered they were being presented with incomplete and inaccurate information. For instance, early exit-polling data indicated that Erskine Bowles was leading Elizabeth Dole in the North Carolina senatorial race. As the day progressed and more exit-poll data was added, that margin grew.

However, when the actual votes were tallied, Dole won the election by almost 200,000 votes, a convincing victory.

“Everyone could smell this coming months in advance,” says Joseph Lenski, co-founder of Edison Media Research, a Somerville, N.J., firm that provided supplemental polling data for CNN. “VNS had been trying to rewrite and retool the system for years. This was just the most recent attempt and it failed miserably.”

Among the causes of the second “perfect storm,” culled from participants, were:

  • Delays in delivering and testing the new voice recognition software used to capture polling data from around the country
  • Complications in consolidating IBM DB2 and Oracle databases, which housed election and demographic data from every state and precinct for 30 years, and transferring the information to a new Oracle 8i database.
  • Insufficient testing of the new Java-based WebLogic application server that replaced mainframe computers running IBM’s Operating System 390.

    “It was a joke,” one political analyst at a major television network told Baseline. “It became obvious to everyone that this wasn’t going to work. There wasn’t enough testing. There was not enough collaboration between the networks and the IT people. And, worse, there was nothing we could do about it. You can’t postpone an election.”

    Network executives quickly concluded they would not use the bulk of the data they were able to collect, particularly the exit-polling information. Projecting winners and losers in various races would take several hours longer than in the past.

    Also, the networks would be unable to give the type of detailed explanations as to why voters voted the way they did this time around. For example, according to TV network analysts working the election, the networks wouldn’t be able to tell viewers why particular demographic groups voted for specific candidates nor the issues that they considered most or least important when voting.