Voter News Service to Get Technology Upgrade

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In voting to spare the life of Voter News Service, media executives said Friday that the polling service's computer system will be upgraded and redesigned in the hope of avoiding a repeat of November's embarrassing election-night errors.

The news service, a consortium of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and Associated Press, also will try to figure out a way to assess the effect of the increased amount of absentee and early voting, officials said. Voter News Service members decided Thursday to rework the service rather than fold it, meeting a self-imposed June 1 deadline.

For the redesign, the board has hired Battelle, a vast nonprofit research and development organization based in Columbus, Ohio. The organization's information technology unit has been a longtime consultant on lottery machine security and recently has been applying that experience to voting machine technology.

A harder job may come later, however, when the TV networks have to convince a skeptical public that their on-air election reporting based on VNS data will be accurate the next time around. The errors last time led to congressional hearings.

"We have confidence that the necessary steps will be and are being taken to ensure the accuracy and reliability of VNS information," NBC News spokeswoman Barbara Levin said.

Although each network made its own calls based on a variety of data sources, the VNS statistical models were partly blamed for the wrong projections the networks made on election night.

Among the errors were calling a winner in the presidential race, twice, in Florida; late in the evening the state was determined too close to call and the networks retracted their projections that George W. Bush had won, although he later was deemed the winner after several weeks of ballot recounts and legal challenges.

The news organizations need the extensive polling data that VNS provides, but other options--including setting up a new system--proved financially impossible for those members that considered going elsewhere, one network executive said.

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