Election 2020

Discussion Guide for High School Students

Section A

1992 Presidential Election 

Political debate goes digital

In 1992, average people did not have mobile phones and “smartphones” had not yet been introduced to the public. The internet had only just become publicly accessible, and there were only a handful of websites that existed in 1992 (approximately 10 websites in 1992 and 130 websites in 19931 with ongoing exponential growth) and the term “surfing the internet” became popular.2 Email also became more commonly used through services, including AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe. Importantly, 1992 was a groundbreaking year in the way that political candidates campaigned and the way that individuals could discuss and debate the issues and the candidates online. At the time, less than a quarter of the US population had a computer in their homes, and only a tiny fraction of those had access to the internet or even knew what it was.

The 1992 US presidential election was a race between Democratic candidate Bill Clinton and Republican candidate George H. W. Bush (the incumbent—the president at the time who was running in hopes of being reelected), as well as an independent candidate named Ross Perot. Perot, who was a tech billionaire from Texas, threw his hat into the ring and really shook things up during the race, even leading in some polls during his campaign. He was focused on balancing the federal budget and planned to implement “electronic town halls” throughout the nation for “direct democracy,” a use of technology that had never occurred previously. In 1992, political campaigns embraced email and online campaigning to some degree, while continuing to prioritize mainstream media formats such as television, radio and newspaper to reach the masses. Although these early days of online political discussion and content had a limited audience, the 1992 election paved the way for future political campaigning to go digital.

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2020 Presidential Election

Impact, accuracy, and ethics of virtual campaigning

In 2020, the internet is an essential tool used by all political parties and candidates as they try to reach and persuade voters to support them in the race for president of the United States of America. The year has brought challenges of all kinds across the country—racial tension relating to inequity and institutionalized discrimination; natural disasters, including wild fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes; and of course the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected not just residents of the US, but the entire global population. Access to the internet and the role it can play in our democracy is more important now than ever before. 

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Section B

2000 Presidential Election 

Hanging chad ballots

The results of the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore were so close they came down to just hundreds of votes. That required a recount, which highlighted problems with voting technology, including inaccurate registration lists, unclear ballot designs, and spoiled ballots from some models of punched card voting machines. Punched cards are paper cards used to store information, in this case a voting choice, by mechanically punching a hole through a card that can then be tallied by a machine. The 2000 election made many Americans aware of problems with voting machines, poorly designed ballots, and the voting process.3, 4

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2020 Presidential Election

Mail-in ballots

In response to the pandemic, the 2020 presidential election will observe widespread expansion of the vote-by-mail process. There are varying state-by-state rules on signature requirements, including signing the envelope, or getting a witness or notary to sign it, or making sure the voter’s signature is legible. These requirements can make a difference in whether a ballot will be counted or tossed aside.5 

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