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Students At E. Washington U. Tally Votes, Send Info To Media Outlets

This story was written by Scott Davis, The Easterner

Votes from more than 2,200 races from 20 states were counted at Eastern Washington University and wired via satellite to major media outlets Tuesday night.

"It's going to be seen by a billion people. It's good publicity for Eastern, as well as a fun event for the students," said Dana Bloch, director of the AP state data center.

Results for live coverage of the events was broadcasted from Cheney, Wash.for the first time since EWU has hosted an Associated Press data center. Coverage was provided by the AP Television Network, a global entity providing for news outlets worldwide, including BBC and Beijing Television.

The process began with students taking calls from stringers in various states hired by the AP, and then tallying votes into a computer. Data was instantaneously wired to media networks where citizens watched for breaking results.

Students used a program called "Reporter's Workbench" to send and file information through the AP's satellite network, Global Video Wire.

"Reporter's Workbench is a Unix system which is older than DOS, that's not to say it's older than dirt," said Mariel Spring jokingly. Spring, editorial assistant and elections liaison for the AP, added, "We're very, very thrilled with the excitement and enthusiasm of the students and they've done very well."

About 230 Eastern students collated the voting data, earning $10 per hour.

Besides here on campus, the only other data centers in the country were in Spokane, which tallied information for 10 states, and two branches in New York -- one in Manhattan and the other in Brooklyn. Eastern has not always hosted this event.

The person responsible for bringing the AP call centers to Eastern is Steve Blewett, professor emeritus and current adjunct public relations professor at EWU. Blewett worked with AP Western Regional Elections Coordinator Ann Joyce in 2000 to move the setup, which used to be in every state, to a central location.

"She [Joyce] called around to Eastern, Whitworth and Gonzaga, and I was the one who returned her call. So we met and worked it out that it would be hosted at Eastern," explained Blewett. His efforts have not gone unappreciated.

Election Day was on all accounts a success in Cheney. "This was all I could hope for. I mean, we just had an extraordinary crew, extraordinary luck in terms of the way that the votes came in, and it was really a great night for us," said Bloch. He added that "it was about the smoothest election that I've ever been involved with."

Part of why the night operated so smoothly was the fact that Sen. Barack Obama was declared president elect by 8 p.m. This did, however, incite some confusion among student-workers.

"I thought it was really interesting that we hadn't heard anything from any of our states yet and in two hours we already knew who the president was. My table didn't even get numbers until like 6 o'clock," said junior communications major Tiffany Geeting.

Geeting said her initial reaction to the early declaration of president was confusion. "I felt it was really strange. Even people around me were really confused, you know, like, 'Why is Obama already winning Illinois?'"

Such perplexities could have been ameliorated through a better understanding of the Electoral College system, according to Patricia Chantrill, associate professor of communication studies at EWU and faculty legislative liaison in Olympia.

Besides requiring her students to participate in AP ballot counting, last Wednesday, Oct. 29, Chantrill's classes "took advantage of a teach-in by the EWU government department, which taught us all about the Electoral College," she stated.

A unanimous sentiment of worthwhileness seemed to be shared by everybody who participated.

For some, it was a rsum booster; for others it was an historical night of learning, not to mention free food from EWU Catering Services.

"It's pretty cool seeing how it actually works at the main level. We're actually taking the votes and not just seeing it on the news, but preparing the statistics for the news," said junior Chris Johnson, a public relations major.

Senior Melissa Hedges felt that "knowing that this is an historical event, it made me want to do this even more because we're all going to be a part of history." She also stated, "I'm a PR major [Blewett's class], so having this experience will help a lot on the rsum."

For Chantrill, the call center was an opportunity to broaden the minds of her students. One international undergraduate student from Germany joined the mix, despite not having a social security number and not being paid. It was worth it, said Chantrill.

"They get enormous things out of this; it's usually kind of indirect. At first they think it's just a computer, you know, data entry kind of thing. But then they get to see on a very microcosmic level what voting is about. We're not counting the votes, we're communicating them," she observed.

Unfortunately for the AP, their task did not end Tuesday night. Approximately 40 workers had to "chase" county clerks and various state offices as late as 6 a.m. (9 a.m. EST) Nov. 5. They retrieved official votes from states too close to call at EWU's Riverpoint campus in Spokane.

"We know who won the big race, but the reality is our job is to count all the votes whether the race is called or not," said Spring. "That's when you realize that everyone's vote does count - we literally count it."

Looking forward, planning for the AP's next political event begins immediately. It is an enormous operation that usually takes a year or so of prepping, in addition to two months of blueprinting strategy.

There are no guarantees, but Eastern looks like a good bid for the next Election Day.

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