AP Plans to Make Its Votes Count

Jan 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

When the presidential primaries begin this month, the Associated Press takes over vote-tallying chores for the defunct Voter News Service, the exit poll consortium that previously provided network news divisions with race projections. VNS was funded by the Associated Press, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and CNN.
To avoid the problems-including inaccurate information and delayed analysis-that plagued VNS in the 2000 and 2002 elections, the AP has implemented substantial editorial and technical upgrades to its vote-tabulation system. AP has used that system effectively for more than 5,500 races per presidential election season and as a backup to VNS, which handled vote counting for top-of-the-ticket races from 1993 to 2002.
The updated AP system, VoteStream, will undergo its first major field use with the Iowa caucus Jan. 19. AP will be the sole provider of vote-tabulation services for the five TV network members of the National Election Pool: ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News Channel.
AP served as a backup vote count to VNS in the past and as the first and only source in thousands of state and local races. That two-pronged experience gives AP, and the networks that will be using it, confidence.
“There is no VNS, so there is no second source,” said Tom Jory, director of election information for AP. “AP is the sole source, so we [had] to build some technical redundancy into our system,” he said. In the past, AP spread the election reporting between its two data centers, in Cranbury, N.J., and Kansas City, Mo.; now each site will back up the other.
In addition, AP refined the Sun Microsystems computer system to analyze results more closely for vote drops, inconsistencies, changes in leadership in races, order-entry mistakes and other nuances, Mr. Jory said. Algorithms built into the computer system should be able to pinpoint data that seems off, but the people running the system on election night also must be vigilant when eyeballing information.
“There is a tightening of the technology to look for inconsistencies and also increasing your human expertise on election night,” Mr. Jory said.
AP used the new system to send results to the networks for the California recall election in October and for general elections in Kentucky and Mississippi on Nov. 4. The system worked well for those elections, but the upcoming primaries include an added layer of complexity because delegates are allocated to presidential candidates through a particular formula, Mr. Jory said.
For the network partners, the new system means more frequent election updates and a more accurate, clean and consistent report on election night. “In the past we exchanged information from VNS to make sure we were consistent. Now we have to do the consistency ourselves. It will mean an accurate database updated as frequently as humanly and technically possible,” Mr. Jory said.
If changes occur, AP editors will be alerted immediately onscreen to analyze the data.
With improved performance and increased memory, VoteStream will be able to handle six to eight times the capacity of the previous version. That means it’s unlikely there will be reporting delays or logjams as more information pours in during peak times, such as 10 p.m. to midnight (ET), said Lillian Toll, a consultant working on the development of VoteStream.
CBS’s Linda Mason is confident the battle-tested AP vote-counting process, with the added safeguards and features, will ensure accuracy, especially given that there will now be only one source of data. “They are going to back themselves up,” said Ms. Mason, CBS’s VP of public affairs and the network’s board member for the new system.
Besides, the wakeup call in the 2000 presidential election has everyone on their toes, said Mark Halperin, political director for ABC News.