Never Heard of the VNS? You Have Now

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So how did this Florida embarrassment happen, anyway?

First of all, this may demonstrate, in a way Joel Klein could only dream about, the danger of monopoly. The networks are now for the most part relying on a single source for their exit polling information — the Voter News Service. The VNS quizzes people exiting polling stations in thousands of (hopefully) representative precincts nationwide, asking them a series of demographic and attitudinal questions that in theory give us a complete snapshot of the Mind of the American Voter. The service is blisteringly fast, churning out state and national results in three waves as the voting day progresses.

Created as a cost-cutting measure by the nets after the 1988 election (they'd previously run their own polls, often in partnerships with major daily newspapers), the VNS currently is run by a consortium of the three big networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) as well as Fox News, CNN and the Associated Press. Subscribers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post (and TIME magazine) pony up an undisclosed (but juicy) bit of change for access.

Of course, they may be suckers to pay for it, because the information turns up all over the place. Though both Slate and the National Journal's web site caved under pressure when sued for posting raw VNS exit polling numbers early in the afternoon of the New Hampshire primary, that threat hasn't stopped Matt Drudge, either a bolder proponent of First Amendment rights or someone who long ago stopped reading those "cease and desist" letters in his mailbox, who posted early numbers all afternoon.

But that's to be expected; in the Internet age, information, like water, flows into every place it can. The more important question: How did the VNS get this one so wrong?

Nobody knows for sure, but there are some possibilities. One was a late and heavy turnout that had Governor Jeb Bush ordering polls to remain open until everyone in line at 7 p.m. had voted. Also, Florida's two time zones may have complicated matters, as well as the rush to get results in for the state that everyone agreed would be the first big test of the election.

This wasn't the first time VNS has had electoral egg on its face; in 1996 its exit polling led the nets to call the New Hampshire Senate race for Democrat Dick Swett, only to see Republican incumbent Bob Smith win. Such gaffes have helped create an anti-VNS backlash. Citizens for a Fair Vote Count charges the VNS misleads voters, depresses vote count, and even perpetuates electoral fraud. While some of this veers dangerously close to Black Helicopter territory, there are legitimate concerns that inaccurate information, or information given out before the polls close, could have an impact on the election.

The remedies? We could ban exit polling; state courts have struck such laws down, but the U.S. Supreme Court might feel differently. Or VNS could just keep the numbers to itself. The service argues that it needs to release its results hours before the polls close so that television networks can plan their coverage, which is, in a word, so much b.s. — nobody needs that much time to rehearse "we're projecting a Democratic win in Massachusetts." The real reason is that not to release early violates the basic raison d'être of journalists, who live for those rare and ego-inflating moments when you're the one in on the secret and you decide when to let everyone know. And it's going to take a lot more than Florida to wean reporters off that.