No Repeat of Election Night 2000
CBS News' Mason is intent on not making the same mistakes
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/17/2004 8:00:00 PM
CBS News Vice President Linda Mason hasn't forgotten the debacle of Election Night 2000 and knows the White House race could be every bit as tight this time around. She remembers how Voters News Service (VNS)—the vote-counting consortium formed by ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News Channel, CNN and the Associated Press—greatly underestimated Florida's absentee ballot, which prompted the networks to call the state for Gore shortly before 8 p.m. on Election Night. When the errors become evident by 10 p.m., the networks admitted they'd been premature. More blunders by VNS led Fox News to call Florida for Bush at 2:16 a.m. The other networks followed Fox's lead shortly after, only to be forced to later declare the race too close to call. The polling disaster kicked off a month-long electoral crisis and forced the networks to disband VNS. In its place, the networks and AP have created the National Election Pool (NEP), which they claim is better prepared for a close race. B&C's Bill McConnell discussed changes in Election Night prognostication with Mason, CBS' representative at NEP. She led the network's investigation into the 2000 election meltdown and authored an 87-page report detailing the mistakes. She knows this election seems likely to be just as close as the last one.
How likely are the networks to blow their calls this time around?
I'm extremely confident we won't have the same troubles. VNS models were all wrong, and their computers broke down. We've tested the new system thoroughly during the primaries, and we've done hours of simulated stress tests, overloading the system to make sure computers won't break down.
What's different besides better computers?
First thing we've changed is, we've split the jobs VNS did in 2000 between two organizations. VNS computers were put under tremendous stress. Now AP will have responsibility for collecting official tabulated results from election officials. Edison Media Research will be doing the exit polling. This system is much more robust because the two tasks will be checking on each other.
Does this mean competing news organizations will be calling different states at the same time?
No. To make projections, all the networks are getting the same data. NEP flatly says no one will call a race in any state before its scheduled close but, once a state's polls close, every network will make its own decision on when to call a race. But you'll see differences between the networks' predictions. At CBS, we have a decision desk where our analysts have worked out models used to make our own predictions. During the Iowa primary, CBS was first calling for Kerry. In Wisconsin, CBS was dead last calling that state for Kerry because Madison and Milwaukee results had not been received. I thought it was a dangerous thing to do. Everybody else called it earlier. It's great that they we're right, but you want to know why you're right.
What else is CBS doing differently?
We've brought our decision desk into the newsroom. In 2000, we were on a separate floor analyzing the returns. We knew there were problems in Florida, but that didn't get communicated to the newsroom.
We will now have a correspondent assigned to the decision desk. If the same problems occur this year, the newsroom will learn about them immediately, and so will viewers. Throughout the evening, we plan to be transparent. Viewers will be along with us in knowing what's happening with vote counts rather than CBS appearing omniscient, as we have in the past. If a counting error leads us to restate a vote, we'll tell viewers why.
But better transparency is not enough. We'll also make it clear when our predictions are based on exit-poll data and our estimates. Viewers will be constantly reminded that mistakes can result. After investigating last election's problems, I learned to my shock there are 2 million uncounted votes in national elections. There are malfunctioning machines and lost bags of votes. All kinds of things happen in a close election, and those votes mean a lot. Every deviation is going to have an effect.
We've also improved how we deal with statistical problems encountered in 2000. We feel we've developed more-appropriate estimates of sampling errors. We don't rely just on exit polls. We will do all we can to report actual returns as soon as possible. We've added sample precincts statistically chosen. You need to see the raw vote to see what's exactly happened. It varies from state to state when tabulated results become available; some are released right away, and some take longer.
If the election is too close to call even after all the polls close, will you admit it or take your best guess to predict a winner?
If it's very close—and there's every indication it will be—one thing we learned in 2000 is that many small things have the power to sway a state one way or another. There's no pressure from Dan or Andy [Anchor Dan Rather or News Division President Andrew Heyward] to be first to call a state. The pressure is to be right.
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