BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This year, on election night, the networks will debut a new apparatus for their poll results. It's called the National Election Pool, and it has risen from the ashes of the Voter News Service, or VNS, which led Dan Rather to call Florida for Gore with absolute, and as it turned out, ludicrous certainty.
BOB GARFIELD: The networks were confident, because they relied on two kinds of information -- exit polls, which offer a snapshot of voting patterns and act as a predictor -- and the actual vote count, announced by officials at individual polling districts after the polls had closed. Associated Press reporters across the country collected the vote counts and turned them over to VNS experts who then tallied the numbers and fed the results to the networks, which is why the media weren't entirely to blame for what went wrong. The Florida exit polls were off, partly because the ballot was so confusing, some people really didn't know for whom they had voted. And the actual vote count was also wrong, because the officials who fed the numbers to reporters were confused too. That's according to Jonathan Storm, who is covering this year's election night planning for the Philadelphia Enquirer.
JONATHAN STORM: What people didn't realize was how wrong the elected officials can be -- not for any nefarious reason. Just because they're not infallible. And a lot of the numbers in Florida were just flat wrong. Combine that with a close vote count, and you have a disaster.
BOB GARFIELD: There was also talk of an undercounting by the VNS of the absentee vote and other methodological problems that skewed the results.
JONATHAN STORM: The number of early voters has increased dramatically, and the VNS last time did three polls in California, Oregon and Washington before the election to see what early voters would be doing. This year, they've done it in 13 states, so that should help. It's very difficult to completely damn the VNS, because for 40 years they did it fine. The thing that was being studied became much more fine than what people had expected, and the apparatus that was designed to study it was simply not up to the delicacy of the vote count.
BOB GARFIELD: So this new consortium -- the National Election Pool -- apart from doing more polls of early voters, what will it be doing differently than VNS to avoid the same sort of problems we saw four years ago?
JONATHAN STORM: They've found areas where vote counts go wrong. If you had a vote count in 2000, and the vote count for that same precinct is X or Y lower or higher, then they're immediately aware that that could be a problem. In 2000, they weren't aware of that sort of thing. Another big difference this time is that all of the figures are going to be made available to everyone -- they're going to be able to see immediately -- because all the figures are available -- if there's something going wrong. The problem is, when you're counting millions and millions of individual actions, you will not have a correct number ever. Take 250 pennies. Throw them on the floor, count them quickly, and I'll bet you 10 dollars you don't get the 250.
BOB GARFIELD: Worst case scenario I'm, I'm out 7.50. [LAUGHTER] Who's behind the National Election Pool? The names of the principals seem awfully familiar.
JONATHAN STORM: The National Election Pool is actually ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press. And then they've gone out and hired Warren Mitofsky, who's the head of Mitofsky International, and Joe Lenski, who is the co-founder of Edison Media Research. Polling, in general, it's a small world, and both of them were there at the beginning of the formation of the Voter News Service in the early '90s. Mitofsky actually helps to invent political exit polling in 1967 in Kentucky. A buddy of his suggested that, since guys who make movies get really good data from people coming out of theaters, that maybe guys counting votes could do the same thing, with people coming out of election polls.
BOB GARFIELD: Last time around, the pressure the networks felt to call Florida first seemed to hasten their calls in what obviously was a very tight race. In the end, does it matter how good the data are if the networks mis-interpret the margin of error and dive in with statistically dubious calls?
JONATHAN STORM: No. The networks aren't -- at least that's what they all say -- they aren't going to be falling over themselves to be first. In fact, David Bohrman, who is the Washington bureau chief for CNN and who's in charge of this election coverage, has said that people are not going to want to be first. They're going to prefer being somewhere in the middle. If someone's wrong, they don't want to be the first to be wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: Last time, they all promised the utmost of restraint, and Dan Rather famously talked about if, if you hear it here, you can take it to the bank, but--
JONATHAN STORM: There was a big run on the bank, and it failed. [LAUGHTER] The entire credibility of the profession is really in kind of swampy ground right now, and I think these guys know it, and I think -- I hope -- that they will be careful. The other thing that I hope that they don't do is go on for hours and hours and hours, as Rather did in 2000, saying we are very careful. Look how careful we are. We are so careful -- because that's just going to put people to sleep.
BOB GARFIELD: So what does that mean? Now does it mean that switching from VNS to National Election Pool and a new methodology is all just sort of futile and that they may as well just break out the chili and-- and have a drink and just wait for the official results to come in Wednesday or Thursday?
JONATHAN STORM: You've got to try. The difference, I think, this time is -- you've got a billion lawyers, you've got Democrats and Republicans there to challenge every vote -- all of that stuff, I think, is going to add up to the fact that you're not going to have a idea in the world of who won this election, even on early Wednesday.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Jonathan, thanks very much.
JONATHAN STORM: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Storm is a reporter and television critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. [MUSIC]