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New Polling System Ready for Iowa Test

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The primary election season shifts into high gear this week with the Iowa caucuses, which will give TV networks and the Associated Press the first high-profile test of the National Election Pool, a new system for gathering voter data and providing rapid analysis.
The new system replaces the Voter News Service, first put in place in 1993 and disbanded in spring 2003 after bad calls were made in the 2000 election and the entire system melted down in 2002. “VNS was a disaster waiting to happen,” said one veteran of many election nights.
The news departments of ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and Fox News Channel have joined with the Associated Press to form NEP, which commissioned two established polling organizations, Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, to conduct exit surveys.
On primary days NEP will conduct exit polling on presidential, gubernatorial and congressional races and on some propositions on state ballots. Edison and Mitofsky will send as many as 6,000 people into the field to conduct the polling. The results will be fed into computers that provide detailed analysis of who voted and why. The AP’s role is to report the tabulated votes.
The new system has already been field-tested in California, where it provided accurate data during the controversial recall election that led to actor Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming governor.
There were “some fixes” in the delivery system, said one decision desk director, who added that the more facile new system also passed an “excellent test” in November during gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi.
“There has been some fine-tuning, but overall it has worked very well,” said Linda Mason, public affairs VP at CBS News.
No one would say how much the NEP is costing. But insiders do say it is not significantly higher than what would have been spent with VNS.
The Edison/Mitofsky system replaces a system created by the Battelle Memorial Institute. That system, which was to have remedied the VNS problems that surfaced in 2000, was not tested before election night 2002, when it basically ground to a halt under the weight of the data and the demands by users.
“In 2002 the networks and the AP put a lot of money into creating that system from scratch, and in the end it just wasn’t successful,” the decision desk director said.
AP and Edison/Mitofsky both had head starts on their systems. The AP has been tabulating votes for nearly 100 years. Warren Mitofsky created the model for the exit poll and executed it in 1967 at CBS News, where he was director of the election unit for 27 years. He founded New York-based Mitofsky International in 1993 and has on previous occasions collaborated with New Jersey-based Edison Media Research on exit polling.
NEP Workout
In Iowa, where some 1,993 caucuses will elect delegates, the polling will be done as voters enter caucus sites, because the doors to the caucus sites will be closed at 8 p.m. and there is no way of knowing when the town-hall-style meetings will break up and final delegate vote counts will be revealed.
Then all eyes-and candidates-turn to New Hampshire and its Jan. 27 primary.
By the time June 8 rolls around, primaries in 38 states will have given a thorough workout to NEP’s new setup-and to the safeguards news organization have put in place to make it less likely that the people deciding when to project or call a race would not compound computer-generated mistakes as they did in 2000.
“None of us want to repeat that,” said the decision desk director.