Monday, November 06, 2006

Election night could be a long one for media

By David Bauder
NEW YORK - With public interest running unusually high, this year's midterm elections pose tough challenges for the vote-counting and exit poll operations that major news organizations rely on to provide speedy word about the outcome.
The system for tabulating votes, run by The Associated Press, will have to deal with a greater than normal number of polling places that are using new voting machines, increasing the possibility of glitches or delays.
And the consortium formed by ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and the AP to conduct exit polls on Election Day has made changes to prevent a repeat of problems experienced in 2004. That year, early poll results were leaked to the Internet and created a misleading picture of how the presidential race was going. Later exit poll results also were unreliable in some cases because of problems that included insufficient training of interviewers.
The 2006 midterms are being watched especially keenly because Democrats are hoping to ride public anger about the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq to take control of the House and Senate away from Republicans.
"We're prepared for a late night, maybe being here all night and into the next morning," said Dan Merkle, ABC News decision desk director. ABC, CBS and NBC plan one-hour prime-time specials and periodic updates, while cable news networks will follow the elections full-time.
As they did in 2004, the networks will rely solely on the AP to tabulate returns. The AP employs stringers in nearly every U.S. county, or every city and town in New England, to call in results of more than 6,000 state and local races to one of more than a dozen tabulation centers, with regional hubs in New York and Spokane, Wash. The earliest returns begin to trickle out shortly after 6 p.m. ET, when the first polls close in Indiana and Kentucky, and the pace quickens to a peak between 10 p.m. and midnight ET.
Updated counts are sent to newspapers, broadcasters and Web sites every few minutes.
In a typical year, 5 percent of counties are dealing with new voting equipment at some of their polling places. This year, it's 60 percent.
Several problems surfaced during primary elections this year. Equipment trouble in Chicago caused very late results there. A software bug prevented many counties in Florida from delivering precinct totals. Up to 20 percent of California's vote wasn't counted on primary night, according to an AP analysis.
"There's always something," said Sandy Johnson, the AP's Washington bureau chief, "and if you're in the business of counting votes and calling elections as the AP is, you take that into consideration and are as careful and accurate and fast as you can be."
While exit poll information will be used to help call Senate and governor's races, news organizations for the most part have to rely on the actual results in House contests to make their calls. The increased number of mail-in or provisional ballots also works against quick resolutions.
"That makes this potentially a very exciting election night," said Kathleen Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys.

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