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Exit polls may cause election hang-ups

Nov. 2, 2004

By SANDI VILLARREAL, assistant city editor

The 2000 presidential election, the closest one in recent history, was called three times before George W. Bush emerged the winner. Faulty exit polling and lack of network competition caused the debacle made by all the major networks, but some say not enough has been done to remedy the problem.

In 2000, all the major news outlets--- --- NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX and The Associated Press -- pooled resources and subscribed to Voter News Service (VNS). This service conducted exit polling for all sample precincts. While each network analyzed the numbers and called states individually, they all used the same information.

Dr. Brad Owens, assistant professor of journalism, said the problem is that all the numbers were coming from the same place.

"When you choose not to have competition, and you choose to create the illusion of knowledge and reject methods that would give you something that's a lot more real, that's a breach of trust," Owens said.

Tom Brokaw, who led NBC News's coverage of the 2000 election night, recently wrote an article in Newsweek explaining the new measures being taken to avoid the same mistakes.

According to Brokaw, exit polling numbers will be fed into computer models that have been "overhauled and fine-tuned so the analysts have much more detailed information to make a judgment about how the election is likely to turn out in any given state."

Although methods have improved since 2000, there is still a chance for error.

"What continues to worry the NBC News experts is the reliability of the raw vote count emerging from counties, especially in battleground states," Brokaw wrote. "That number is a critical factor in making the computer models work; if it's off by a small margin, it can greatly distort the results."

Another problem stems from the fact that there remains only one polling service. Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International have been designated the official 2004 National Election Exit Polling Service. While this gives the illusion of two separate entities, the two groups will be working together to produce exit poll results.

Also, according to the Associated Press 2004 Election Guide, the AP will be the sole source of presidential election returns for the first time.

Once again, all the major news outlets are using the same service, this time named the National Election Pool.

Warren Mitofsky, of Mitofsky International, has had vast experience in conducting polls and has been doing so since 1967. However, he was the head of VNS and called the state of Florida for Gore in the 2000 election for CNN.

Owens said Mitofsky, in essence, invented the exit poll, but his "last try at presidential prediction was by all accounts a disaster."

Owens said the model has been improved, but networks "haven't made a commitment to get better through competition ... As citizens, we have to ask why that is."

One factor that could throw the entire system off is the great number of citizens who took advantage of early voting.

"The Osama [bin Laden] video is completely irrelevant to a quarter of voters because they already came out," Owens said.

Early voting, absentee voting, late reporting and overly cautious and uneasy news reporters could cause delayed election results again this year.