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Media's exit polling service mimics 2000's

Today's vote in New Hampshire marks the official start of the 2004 election season _ Iowa held caucuses and not elections last week _ and thus the first official electoral test of the National Election Pool, the successor to the much-maligned Voter News Service.

VNS was the consortium of news organizations _ ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, Fox News Channel, CNN and the Associated Press _ that provided exit polling and analysis during the 2000 elections and helped lead off a monthlong electoral debacle by mistakenly calling Florida for Al Gore, followed hours later by premature projections that Bush won the race. The organization survived a hailstorm of criticism and scrutiny after 2000, only to fall flat on its face in the 2002 midterm elections when its computer system failed, leaving the networks _ and viewers _ with no exit polling data. That spelled the end of VNS and the beginning of the NEP.

What's the difference? Not much. The NEP will get its exit polling data from Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, two research firms. Warren Mitofsky, a polling expert who founded the predecessor to VNS but was working as a consultant to CBS and CNN during the 2000 election, said that aside from some minor alterations, he will be using the same techniques and statistical models that VNS always used.

Among the changes is an emphasis on accounting for absentee ballots, the volume of which in Florida caught VNS off guard in 2000, and what Mitofsky said is a more durable computer system.

All in all, Mitofsky acknowledged, the system is essentially a refined and updated version of what VNS was doing in 2000. So how will he avoid a replay of an early call for the wrong candidate?

The only way to prevent it, Mitofsky said, is to make criteria for when to call an election more stringent. Which the networks haven't done.

"They've all agreed to use the same criteria" they used in 2000, he said.