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Killing VNS May Be Way to Fix Voter Polling

With two blown elections in a row, Voter News Service may soon be history.

It's not a fait accompli, but there is a consensus among network news executives that scrapping VNS is the best way to insure that vote counting and exit polling go smoothly during the 2004 presidential election campaign. But the networks need to have a reliable service in place before the primaries begin.

The VNS board—comprising members representing its partner news organizations including The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, CBS News, NBC News and ABC News—is set to meet today. Topping the agenda: a decision about whether to terminate a contract with Battelle Memorial Institute, which has supplied all the new computer models and software for a top-to-bottom revamp of VNS that began shortly after the service imploded on election night 2000.

It's a sticky issue because VNS signed Battelle to a multiyear contract. If the networks decide to void the contract, Battelle may decide to sue, although some argue the software firm probably doesn't have a case since the 2002 fix didn't work as it was supposed to.

Even today, VNS can't produce any exit polling data on the way various segments of the population voted and why.

If the VNS board does decide to cancel its contract with Battelle, the odds are good that a decision to scrap VNS itself would soon follow. Last week, sources at two of the VNS partners said it was looking like VNS would be disbanded.

As the partners have been analyzing reports on what went wrong, they have been considering alternatives to VNS. Sources said it's likely that if VNS goes away, the current partners would stay together in some form of consortium. And they say it's also likely that separate entities would be contracted to provide vote-counting and exit-polling services.

The AP has been doing its own accurate election-night vote tally and sources say that AP could become the primary vote-counting service for the consortium. Indeed, all the partners used AP in November when VNS faltered.

It's possible that each organization would create back-up exit poll systems to double-check data.