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Election sites avoid gridlock

Unlike the bandwidth-taxing posting of the Starr report or John Glenn's space shuttle lift-off, election sites easily handle the surprising results.

Two years ago, when the Net was just gaining in popularity, sites posting election results were deluged with so much traffic that citizens hungry for information had to turn elsewhere. This election year was a different story.

Unlike in the case of recent bandwidth-taxing events such as the posting of Ken Starr's report to Congress or John Glenn's space shuttle lift-off, news sites, for the most part, had no trouble handling traffic increases.

Leading sites like ABCNews.com, CNN's AllPolitics, MSNBC, and Washington Post.com were easy to access at normal speeds as users tried to stay abreast of unprecedented elections returns--in which the party in the White House picked up seats in the sixth year of its administration. Typically, the party of the president loses more than 20 congressional seats in a midterm phenomenon known as the "six-year itch."

Most sites reported extremely high traffic, but none reported problems with users being shut out. Some local sites, such as those affiliated with newspapers, reported occasional slowdowns, but problems seemed minimal compared with the last election season.

Election Day site traffic
Site Unique Audience Reach Percentage
MSNBC.com 1,728,942 7.3%
ZDNet 1,473,398 6.2%
CNN.com 1,198,912 5%
ABC News.com 792,504 3.3%
USA Today.com 638,534 2.7%
Time-Warner's Pathfinder 450,146 1.9%
Washington Post.com 371,324 1.6%
New York Times.com 285,722 1.2%
CBS.com 270,609 1.1%
Source: NetRatings

"The bar has moved much higher now," she said. "This election has brought many more users to the Internet. More people are coming to the Internet for the specific purpose of getting the news."

MSNBC ranked last night's usage among its top four highest traffic days ever, with 1.1 million users visiting, according to spokeswoman Debby Fry Wilson. Users focused primarily on getting local coverage and local events, she noted.

The Washington Post's site also measured significantly increased traffic, and was able to handle it well, said Erin O'Shea Starzynski.

From 8 p.m. to midnight ET, the Post saw a 100 percent to 150 percent increase in average traffic levels, with traffic peaking at 9 p.m., she said.

"Last night it was such a beautiful sight, having been there two years ago," she said. "We had three contingency plans [in case of gridlock] and we never had to go beyond our first plans. It was awesome. I was very impressed with how everyone went about their business."

In yet another example of the convergence of online and broadcast media, most election sites closely followed television coverage. As a result, they could be setting themselves up for the same type of controversy that has dogged network reporting. In the rush to project winners, network television often has been criticized for calling races before polls close. Candidates in smaller races as well as ballot initiatives suffer, critics charge, because potential last-minute voters are discouraged from participating once races have been declared over.

Such criticism is most commonly voiced during presidential elections, when the networks begin reporting well before West coast polls have closed as a result of the three-hour time difference.

Last night, the Web proved it is open to the same kind of criticism. CNN's AllPolitics, for example, had called both California's gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races by 7:50 p.m. PT, before voting was complete.

However, the ability to make immediate revisions and updates is one of the Web's strengths. Those options were not available to Chicago Daily Tribune editors in 1948, when the newspaper erroneously published the headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman" in an edition famously held aloft by the victorious incumbent.