Networks To Dissolve Exit Poll Service: Replacement Sought For Election Surveys

By Richard Morin / Washington Post Staff Writer / January 14, 2003
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The major television networks and the Associated Press decided yesterday to dissolve the Voter News Service exit poll consortium but have not reached agreement on a replacement plan to survey voters on Election Day.

VNS employees were told at a morning meeting at their headquarters in Brooklyn that they had been laid off immediately and the service had been disbanded. The consortium has stumbled in the past two national elections, with the networks calling the 2000 election for George W. Bush only to have to retract it later that night. Last year the VNS computer crashed on election night, leaving news organizations without exit polls.

During yesterday's brief but stormy session, Murray Edelman, VNS editorial director, angrily denounced the network partners for making the exit poll service into the "scapegoat" for the problems, according to VNS employees at the meeting. He declined to comment when contacted at his home after the session.

The networks and the AP have not decided what to do with the unreleased data collected by VNS on Election Day, when a massive systems failure shut down its analysis and data collection operations. The exit poll service reportedly was close to releasing the results of the national exit poll and possibly some state exit poll results when VNS was shuttered.

Through yesterday, the partners considered two possible replacements for VNS, one offered by CNN and a more informal proposal made by CBS. But the meeting ended without a final decision, said a source with direct knowledge of the deliberations. The partners are scheduled to meet again today.

Both proposals try to keep the existing consortium together as a partnership. The CNN plan would rely on a system designed by Warren Mitofsky of Mitofsky International and Joe Lenski of Edison Media Research, consultants hired by the network two years ago to advise it on exit polling and election forecasting. The plan calls for a national exit poll in 2004 as well as exit polls in each of the 50 states, sources said. The system could be expanded to include exit polls in next year's presidential primaries.

Other VNS members would join with CNN as equal partners in a pool arrangement that would oversee but not directly manage the exit poll operation, which would cost about $10 million.

Under the CBS proposal, the network would hire some of the consortium's employees, including some who already are on the payroll of different partners. A contractor would be hired to conduct the actual exit polling. The current partners would jointly administer the operation, which would be based within CBS.

Both plans initially had received a cool reception from other VNS partners. Some members fear the CBS plan merely relocates VNS and its problems to CBS. But others worry that the CNN plan would make it appear that the other networks were clients of CNN.

There were concerns that Mitofsky might exert too much influence in the CNN-sponsored effort. Mitofsky, an experienced survey researcher and formidable personality, is the former head of the predecessor to VNS and previously had directed the CBS polling unit for 15 years. He and Lenski have worked together extensively on exit polls, including one done for The Washington Post on the District mayoral race in November. In 1994, Mitofsky did exit polls for a newspaper group that included The Post and the New York Times. Technical problems delayed delivery of those data on election night.

For nearly two years, Mitofsky and Lenski have been working on a precinct-based exit poll and vote-counting system for CNN as a double-check against VNS data. The CNN system worked virtually flawlessly on Election Day last November while VNS crashed. The CNN system, which would be the core of its proposed new exit poll operation, gave CNN an advantage in recent negotiations over the other networks, which had nothing comparable in place.

The VNS board of managers also reached agreement with Battelle Memorial Institute to settle an outstanding contract to complete development of new exit poll technology and software, sources involved in the talks said.

VNS experienced serious problems with Battelle almost from the start of their relationship two years ago. Consortium employees repeatedly warned the board that Battelle was failing to perform -- warnings that the board did not take seriously, according to sources with direct knowledge of VNS operations.

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