Vote-Counting Service Disbanded

Six major news organizations announced Monday they are disbanding Voter News Service, the consortium they had built to count votes and conduct surveys on Election Day. The decision follows two major election-night failures in a row by VNS.

Given the expense of mounting such operations on their own, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and The Associated Press said they were considering other options for sharing vote counts and exit poll surveys.

But it will no longer be VNS, an operation led by Ted Savaglio, a former CBS News producer.

In November 2000, flawed information from VNS twice led television networks to incorrectly declare a winner in the presidential race in Florida, the state that proved to be key to the outcome. The results there weren't determined until weeks later after recounts and a court battle that was resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of George W. Bush over Al Gore.

Following that embarrassment, VNS contracted with Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio-based research company, to rebuild its system. But in the 2002 election, VNS was unable to provide its members and other clients with results from exit poll surveys. This material is used to help make projections of winners and to supplement the vote count with an analysis of why people voted as they did.

The dissolution of VNS means that the system Battelle was building will not be completed, according to a network executive who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Voter News Service formed in 1993, merging separate companies that counted votes and conducted exit polls. Networks were looking to work together to cut costs — pressures that are just as acute today.

The news organizations are considering entrusting the election night vote count to the AP, which has long conducted its own vote count separate from VNS, the network source said. Relying in part on its own numbers, the AP was the only consortium member not to declare Bush the winner in Florida early in the morning after the 2000 election.

Consortium members are also thinking about several alternatives for building a new exit poll operation.

The VNS board members, in a statement, said Monday they "are collectively reviewing a number of strong options for how to provide the tabulation of the national vote count as well as state and national exit polls for the 2004 election. An announcement will be forthcoming."

Time is of the essence for the news organizations, with the 2004 presidential primaries beginning in a year.