Getting It Right

At a time when the nation is nervous about election returns, the networks have taken extra steps to ensure accurate reporting. In 2000, the Florida flip-flop damaged their credibility. That fiasco led to an overhaul in analyzing polling data: In 2004, Voter News Service is out, National Election Pool is in.

Formed by ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, the Associated Press, CNN and Fox News, NEP will be the primary source of vote count, election analysis and election projections on Election Night, Nov. 2. Unlike the VNS, the NEP is dividing the workload: The AP will tabulate votes; Edison Research and Mitofsky International will handle exit polling and analysis. The system has already been tested on 23 elections and primaries and performed flawlessly.

The big question is, can the system cope with a new set of possible snafus?

NBC Director of Elections Shelly Gawiser believes a close election could mean days "before results are finalized." Topping the list of potential headaches is provisional voting, allowing people who haven't registered to step up to a polling place, fill out forms and vote. This is the first general election when provisional balloting has been available in all states (except those that allow same-day registration). The potential impact on Tuesday's ability to call a race could be huge, since no one knows how many provisional ballots there will be.

Edison Media Research Executive Vice President Joe Lenski puts the provisional-voting issue near the top of his wild-card list. Provisional balloting means news outlets will pause before declaring a winner in states decided by less than one point, he says. In 2000, five states fell into that category.

Absentee ballots are another major concern.

Says Thom Bird, Fox News Channel executive producer, news specials and events, "Absentee ballots have increased since the last election, so that adds an interesting factor into the analysis and decision-making process. And electronic balloting is constantly in question. But if the information coming in appears not to be reliable, then a call won't be made."

CBS News Director of Surveys Kathleen Frankobic notes that many states count votes slowly and a record number of absentee ballots will slow things down even further. "Remember that, in 2000, Washington state only had 30% of its votes counted the morning after the election," she says, "and that was a normal vote."

This year, says Warren Mitofsky, president of Mitofsky International, absentee-vote surveys will be available for the 13 states expected to have the largest number of ballots. In 2000, only three such surveys existed, and there were no surveys at all of past Florida elections.

Despite the unknowns, Frankobic has confidence in the NEP system, especially the division of labor between AP and Edison/Mitofsky. After all, in 2000, the AP was the one news organization that got it right, declaring the race too close to call. AP has been getting presidential elections right since 1848, which is why AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll trusts the vote data. "The system's been tested and retested," she says, "and we know the places where the [race will be tight]."

The AP system is also being expanded.

More than 5,400 people will be involved in AP's vote count, according to AP Senior Vice President John Reid. The big difference from 2000 will be an additional layer of analysts handling quality control. With nearly 5,000 stringers in counties across the country phoning in raw vote totals received from local officials, quality control is key. Local votes will be collected in 16 vote-collection centers nationwide (the largest is in Spokane, Wash.) and processed by 450 data-entry clerks. AP's New York headquarters will also serve as a collection center, handling Arkansas, Delaware, Maryland, Vermont, Nebraska, D.C. and Virginia. A conference room set up with PCs classroom-style will be home to data-entry clerks, supervisors and editors on Election Day. Once compiled and double-checked, the data are sent to two computer centers: one in Cranberry, N.J., and the other in Kansas City, Mo.

"[The computer centers have software] like giant financial tickers, pulling in input from hundreds of different sources," says Reid. "It crunches the numbers and puts out a summary. It also breaks them down by county or region, important for determining trends."

One very important key to accuracy, Reid explains, is historical data. The AP will bring in the raw data, then compare it with that gathered from previous elections for the county or region. "If the numbers are out of whack, it gets flagged," he says. "We'll check back with the source before it becomes part of the report."

According to Carroll, the vote count is only one-third of the Election Day process. The other two-thirds are making race calls from AP's "Decision Desk" in Washington, D.C., and the operation run by Edison/Mitofsky, which will handle exit polling at 1,480 precincts across the 50 states and collect the vote count in sample precincts to help make predictions. Interviewers at the precincts will have a rate of interviewing that correlates with the size of the precinct.

"Several times during the day, they'll call in to the phone centers," says Lenski. "Results are then sent through our computational systems to create the projections and exit-poll cross-tabulation estimates. Those results are then sent to the AP and the five networks."

That's when Election Night fun begins.

Each network's analysts apply their own set of models. Frankobic says the CBS team will be on the studio floor, putting them in close proximity to news developments. NBC's Gawiser will be isolated entirely from what's going on at other networks. "The only thing I'll be able to see are my graphics or an NBC outlet," he says. The numbers will come in and, after a team of analysts make a call, handed on to a political consultant and statistical consultant. If they're comfortable with them, the numbers are handed on to Gawiser and, finally, to David McCormack, NBC's executive vice president of broadcast standards.

One sure bet: With thousands of ground troops gathering data for the NEP, there will be no shortage of data. But no one can predict the unexpected. Says Gawiser, "I worry about everything until Election Night is over."