NEW YORK (AP) – The consortium of news organizations that runs the election exit polls has voted to delay distribution of data for several hours on future election days.

Exit poll data won’t be distributed until after 4 p.m. EST to the organizations that have paid for it: ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and The Associated Press, NBC’s elections director Sheldon Gawiser said Thursday.

On Nov. 2, the companies conducting the polls, Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, distributed the first wave of exit poll data at 1 p.m. – and the numbers were immediately leaked on the Internet and to the campaigns.

Those initial numbers suggested that Sen. John Kerry had slight leads in Florida and Ohio – both battleground states that were won by President Bush when the votes were actually counted.

“There were an awful lot of people on the Internet talking about things they don’t understand,”‘ said Gawiser, head of the news organizations’ steering committee. “First wave exit poll data is not terribly accurate.” Those first numbers reflect only interviews with people who have voted in the morning.

By delaying release of numbers until between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., pollsters will have talked to more people and, it is presumed, have a more accurate snapshot of the electorate, he said.

The news organizations would also like to prevent their employees from leaking the information but, given the nature of reporters who trade in information, realize that’s hard.

The organizations are also looking into general questions about the quality of Edison/Mitofsky’s work, and whether the early indicators for Kerry revealed flaws in their polling process.

This investigation is under way, Gawiser said.

It’s the third straight major election in which problems have cropped up with exit poll data. Edison/Mitofsky was hired for this election after a previous organization failed to deliver usable exit poll information on Election Day 2002 and provided information that resulted in the television networks blowing calls on the election in 2000.

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