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We Can Now Report That Voter News Service Has Lost

The major TV news organizations are close to deciding that they will use the Associated Press as the primary vote-count system for the 2004 elections.

The networks relied on the AP system to get through last November's Election Night coverage when Voter News Service, the vote-tally and -projection service the networks (and, in fact, AP itself) jointly funded for over a decade, failed for the second consecutive election.

Indeed, the AP and VNS vote tabulations were used as cross-checks in most previous elections. But, for now, it appears that there will one less cross-check. Last week, consortium partners CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox and the AP pulled the plug on VNS.

Sources said some 30 VNS staffers, including President Ted Savaglio, were terminated with severance packages.

Although AP will be the raw-vote counter, the news organizations are still debating how to do exit polls and projections. Several options are being considered. Among them is a proposal from two veteran researcher/pollsters, one of whom, Warren Mitofsky, headed VNS in the '90s and, before that, did research and polling work at CBS. The other is Joseph Lenski, a former colleague of Mitofsky's at CBS and now head of Edison Research.

Last November, the two helped CNN put together a backup exit-polling apparatus in key states where the network believed that the contest would be very close and VNS most likely to falter. They were more right than they knew: The entire VNS exit-polling operation failed while CNN's backup service provided reliable data.

Early on, as the partners were pondering how to proceed post-VNS, CNN had proposed having the other networks subscribe to an expanded service similar to the one Mitofsky and Lenski implemented.

But the other networks countered that they would feel more comfortable if Mitofsky and Lenski operated their service independent of CNN, and sources say CNN has agreed that might be best.

A second option is a new consortium that would be operated as a pool, with a different partner leading the exit-poll/projection function on a rotating basis.

Sources say CBS is putting together a feasibility study that will be presented to consortium members shortly. Final decisions are expected in the next week or two.