Game Over for VNS

By Larry Barrett Print this article Print

After two humiliating technology failures, six major news services are disbanding VNS, a consortium formed to count votes and conduct Election Day surveys. How could the system have been overhauled before disaster struck twice?

Game Over for VNS

This second debacle meant the end of VNS, as the news organizations said they would look at new ways of tabulating national and state results. Insiders close to VNS say the media organizations will likely rely more on their own individual exit polling and that of the Associated Press exit polling data in future elections. Battelle Memorial Institute, the Columbus, Ohio-based technology firm charged with overhauling the VNS system, was terminated.

"There's no way the networks are going to do anything that's connected to Battelle going forward," says one network analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity. "That ship has sailed."

Battelle Memorial Institute representatives declined to comment. Even before it got the boot, the organization appeared to distance itself from VNS. Its corporate Web site made no mention of its work or association with VNS.

The networks now face the prospect of returning to the days of conducting nationwide polls separately—at cost of roughly $10 to $12 million per four-year election cycle—rather than shelling out between $5 million $7 million per cycle by sharing operations. .

The idea behind forming VNS was to pool funds. That way, news organizations could pare costs and still get a much larger and, theoretically, more accurate sample from voters on Election Day. All members, including 19 newspapers, shared in the management of the company and oversaw its $33 million operating budget for the current four-year election cycle.

Warren Mitofsky, a media consultant who developed an exit-polling analysis system for CBS in 1967 and worked for VNS in the early 90s, says the project was doomed from the beginning.

"You simply can't have six different competing news agencies jointly managing a technology project of this scope," he says. "That's why I left VNS. Everyone is trying to decide what should be done and how. If you don't have a final decision maker who takes the responsibility for a project like this, you end up with what we saw in November."

And it is that structure that proved stormy, not just the technology.

"The truth is that had there been better collaboration between the people who collected and passed along the data to those who were analyzing the data and publicly projecting the results, this all could have been avoided," says Michael Traugott, a University of Michigan professor who worked at VNS for more than 10 years. After the 2000 fiasco, though, "VNS decided it was time to make a real effort to fix the system.''

The first step was to change the VNS board of directors. Before the 2000 meltdown, the board was composed of representatives from the election units of each network. After the 2000 fiasco, a vice president from each network was on the board.

That new board took bids from computing companies to completely rewrite the VNS system. One stipulation: That the new system use more flexible and current programming languages—Java and the Extensible Markup Language— rather than OS 390 to gather, compute and deliver data to the media outlets.

The idea: Data could then easily be provided instantaneously to subscribers over the Internet.

This article was originally published on 2003-01-13
Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.
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