My parents have always been news junkies – my dad was a poli-sci major and taught government in adult night school way back when (in fact, he was caught right in the middle of the Watts Riots after school one night, he escaped with the help of some students) – so I remember very vividly watching the election returns with them in the ’60s and ’70s, back when the elections weren’t called until actual votes were freaking counted. That’s when men were men and political conventions weren’t just a rubber stamp, and election night dragged on into election morning before anyone was sure of anything.
So it was with no small satisfaction that I witnessed the various news agencies have to retract such minor matters as the next president of the United States back in 2000. I loved hearing all of these smug clowns have to eat their words after declaring Gore the winner (although I voted for him): “We, uh, called the presidential race prematurely it seems. Our, uh, scientific polling data somehow got defibrilated by the frazzumblork, and as a result, we, um, suck.”
Last night was more like the old days sitting in front of the black-and-white, seeing that Dr. Doctor had once again been elected to the L.A. School Board:
- Voter News Service, the news media consortium whose flawed data led to erroneous projections on Election Night 2000, withheld results from its national and state exit polls Tuesday because it could not guarantee their accuracy.
In addition, vote counts from VNS came in so slowly during the night that some television networks relied on a backup system provided by the Associated Press.
Without information from exit polls, in which voters are asked who they voted for as they leave polling places, television networks had to wait for votes to be counted to project winners in congressional and gubernatorial elections. Newspapers were left without one of their main sources of information on why elections go the way they do. Exit polls provide information on who voted and why voters made the choices they did. They are also used to predict winners before votes are fully counted.
Networks still projected winners before all the votes came in — and even at the moment polling places in some states closed. But they did so based on votes from key precincts chosen to reflect the makeup of the state’s voters.
”It’s back to the ’60s, sitting in front of the television set until all the votes are counted,” MSNBC anchor Lester Holt said as the evening’s coverage got underway.
VNS warned networks and newspapers in advance about problems with its system. Determined to avoid the embarrassment of 2000, networks made plans to back up exit polls with vote counts from several sources. ”It’s good to be reminded that exit polls are fallible and real votes are what counts,” CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson said.
….VNS said the problems with the exit polls lay in the software that crunches information from questionnaires filled out by voters.
”If you see a number that looks suspicious to you, you check it out. If the process is not calculating every element properly, you have to adjust or you have to fix the program,” VNS Executive Director Ted Savaglio said. ”We saw things that we didn’t like, and we just didn’t feel we could publish the poll.”
That left newspapers with holes in their planned election coverage.
….VNS conducts both state and national exit polls. The questions asked vary by state and for the national poll. The demographic makeup of the respondents is adjusted to reflect the population of a state or of the entire country. State exit polls are used to help project winners in the statewide races. The national poll is used to analyze what issues are important to different groups of voters.
The use of exit polls to predict winners has been controversial since 1980, when President Jimmy Carter conceded the election before polls closed on the West Coast.
Exit poll information comes out in waves throughout the day. But since networks pledge not to predict winners before the polls close, television newscasters end up hinting that candidates are or are not doing well.
As a result of bad election calls in 2000, networks explained more fully Tuesday why and how they were able to project winners, or why they could not. Fox News Channel even reported when other networks had projected a victory and noted that its own ”decision desk” had not declared a winner.
Not being able to project races as quickly is tough for networks, because they know viewers are tuning in to get results.
”On Election Day, people expect and want and should be able to know who’s winning, especially in the vast majority of races where we really do know who they are,” CNN’s David Bohrman said.
Weep, weep, weep.