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VNS Revises Playbook

On election night, it wasn't just the exit-polling piece of the revamped Voter News Service that failed. Parts of the main-counting system didn't work either.

Yep, it's a big mess all right, and VNS and its member news organizations are working frantically to come up with an action plan by year's end to get the service up and running correctly in time for the 2004 elections. And that's not two years away; it's just a little more than a year away, starting with the New Hampshire primary.

Two weeks ago, both VNS and Battelle Memorial Institute—which developed the new software systems for the revamped service—furnished separate reports on what went wrong on Election Night. VNS board members and technical committees including staffers from all the member news organizations (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN and AP) are poring over the reports now. They hope to have a plan for working out all the bugs i within a few weeks.

VNS chief Ted Savaglio didn't return a call requesting comment. And some VNS board members said through spokespeople that they don't want to talk about the situation until the reports have been fully analyzed and a plan put into place.

Savaglio's tenure at VNS remains unclear. Some network news officials remain irate that VNS failed to the extent it did on Election Night. "If it were up to me, he'd be out of a job," said a source at one VNS member news organization.

Others were more sympathetic. Indeed, one news executive stressed that the ongoing investigation "isn't a witch hunt. Ted is respected. This is about getting it fixed and running properly for the next election. We are going to fix this, and we're working as fast we can to get a plan in place by the end of the year."

Tom Jory, director of election information for AP and a member of the VNS technical committee, confirms that, while the exit polling system didn't work, "the vote count was a problem too." Throughout much of Election Night, he says, a lot of the VNS members relied on AP vote-return data instead of the VNS data.

Jory stresses that the "integrity" of the VNS vote tabulations wasn't at issue. It was accurate, but it was being processed well behind schedule throughout most of the night. "Once the votes started coming, it bogged down pretty quickly," he said.

Marty Ryan, head of Fox News' election-night coverage, had contingency plans that worked. Fox did phone surveys in 10 closely contested states that provided its primary source for analysis throughout the night. The lack of VNS data no doubt slowed the process, particularly in the case of close races, said Ryan. On the other hand, "it probably added a little bit of drama to the night. We're getting really good ratings at 2 a.m."