|Glitch led to 'Bush wins' call
By Philip Meyer
Democrats have been on the defensive ever since Fox News Channel declared George W. Bush the Florida ballot winner in the wee hours of Nov. 8 and the other networks fell into line like baby ducks, prompting Al Gore's premature concession.
From then on, nothing Democrats could do would overcome the appearance that they were trying to steal the election on technicalities. And nothing Republicans could say would overcome the suspicion that they had planned the whole thing. That a cousin of George W. Bush was working the Fox decision desk added fuel to the conspiracy theories.
But the fact is a computer glitch and a failure to get the word out in time are what caused the trouble.
Deanie Lowe, Volusia County elections supervisor, spotted the problem. In her county, an Accu-Vote system uses a scanner to read a voter's mark - made with a pen, not a punch - and advances a counter in an electronic storage device. Results are sent to county headquarters by modem.
Precinct 216 had modem trouble, so workers fed its memory card into the headquarters' central computer. "Gore just went backward," an election watcher said.
"You're tired," Lowe replied. "You must be seeing things." Then another observer chimed in: Gore's count had gone backward.
Lowe ordered all of the precincts reviewed. At 1:24 a.m., the review showed that 412 of 585 registered voters in Precinct 216 had cast ballots - but that they had given 2,813 votes to Bush! Gore had a negative vote: minus 16,022. Ralph Nader's negative vote was even greater. The problem was traced to an error in the memory card.
Bad information means bad call
Meanwhile, the decision desks of the five networks and The Associated Press, owners of Voter News Service (VNS), were looking at models that included the negative Gore count. "That contributed to a statewide number that made it look like Bush was more than 50,000 ahead of Gore, with 97% reported and about 180,000 votes still to be counted," recalls Warren Mitofsky, who headed the CNN/CBS decision desk. "You can't make up 50,000 out of 180,000. I would have made that call without hearing anybody else's call."
Mitofsky is the dean of election-night estimators. His moves are watched by the other decision desks. "Warren is just so knowledgeable, you do take that into consideration," says Paul J. Lavrakas, who has been an election consultant for VNS.
But what none of the decision-makers knew was that Bush's lead then really was closer to 30,000. The estimation model correctly was forecasting it would drop by 30,000, so the right number would have projected a tie - which in fact it did later in the morning after the Volusia error was fixed.
The real vote in Precinct 216 was 22 for Bush and 193 for Gore. Nader got one.
Not all made the call
The VNS side of this story has yet to be told. VNS' head, Murray Edelman, gave a previously scheduled talk after the election to the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research, but would not discuss the case. That's a pity, because both VNS and the AP deserve credit for never jumping on that early morning Bush bandwagon. We'd all like to know what they saw that the networks missed.
When they created VNS, the networks intended it to do everyone's calls. But in 1994, the AP and ABC jumped ship, with each doing its own projecting from the pooled data. The others followed - at the cost of disconnecting analysts from their data.
Networks do check each other. But they all feel the same pressure: If viewers are scanning channels, who are they watching? The anchor with the winner's name or the one who admits he hasn't figured it out yet? With a system like that, we don't need a conspiracy theory.
Philip Meyer, who holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina, is a USA TODAY consultant and member of its board of contributors.