US presidents have telegraphed and tweeted to grab your attention. The technology behind political activism, the right to vote, presidential campaigns, and propaganda influences voters’ decisions generation after generation. The desire to influence you has not changed, but the tools to get your vote on election day have never been more persuasive.
Learn about the longstanding history of technology and media in elections and the questions they raise about America’s democratic values today.
America’s future is uncertain but technology continues to be at the center, influencing our choices and opinions. Questions about police violence, Russian election interference, and mail-in voting are raised during a worldwide coronavirus pandemic. In late summer, party conventions are televised from near empty sets, while social media channels blow up with partisan opinions to influence our votes.
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie reported to the New York Times and the Guardian/Observer that British internet research firm Cambridge Analytica had purchased data on 50 million Facebook users to build a “psychological warfare tool,” promoting pro-Trump content during the 2016 presidential campaign. On April 10, 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the US Congress to face questions about the breach, as well as Facebook’s policies on objectionable or untrue content.
Starting his presidency with 20.6 million Twitter followers, Trump became the most active president on Twitter in history, using the channel to communicate throughout the day and night with the public. Trump joined Twitter as an individual in March 2009 and sent out his first tweet on May 4, 2009, advertising his upcoming appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Clinton’s team employed data scientists who designed statistical models to guide campaign strategy, while Trump’s team relied heavily on social media and free advertising. The Trump campaign placed nearly 6,000,000 Facebook ads and variations, while Clinton’s team used only about 66,000. Social media allowed governments, campaigns, and sometimes individuals to quickly influence public opinion on a global scale.
Barack Obama won the election and became the first African-American president in US history. During the campaign, the Obama team blazed a path by masterfully using social media to mobilize the public online, including unprecedented crowdsourcing of financial support for the campaign. Social media like Twitter and Facebook became pivotal forums for political views and debate. Obama became the first tweeting president with the @POTUS44 twitter handle in 2015.
In the wake of the 2000 election recount, Congress passed the “Help America Vote Act,” which mandated higher standards for voting equipment. The act prematurely promoted touch screen technology as the future of voting. But in the 2016 election, electronic voting machines in 21 states were targeted by Russian hackers. Some states scrapped expensive touch screen voting machines and switched back to paper based systems.
The George W. Bush vs. Al Gore presidential election results hung in the balance for weeks following election night. The margin of error was so close, the difference was being measured in the hundreds, out of millions of votes cast. Some poorly punched ballot cards by voters could not be read by vote counting machines so election workers resorted to counting holes and “hanging chads” on the punched cards to tally the election. The process took five weeks and only ended with a Supreme Court decision in favor of Bush.
Each hole punched in a paper card or ballot produces a small paper fragment called a chad. Discover the difference between a “clean chad” and a “hanging chad” in CHM’s Election 2020 Discussion Guide for High School Students.
The 1994 White House website publicizes Clinton and Gore’s strong support for the World Wide Web. Developed by Tim Berners-Lee and others at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in 1990, the World Wide Web was becoming the dominant way to navigate the growing internet. Websites included major news outlets, and soon easy email sites like Hotmail.
Did you know?
Today election news is delivered personally to us via the internet on our device of choice. But in 1996, getting election news other than through traditional media was a novel idea.
Vote America: Your Field Guide to Electing a President, an interactive CD-ROM with a companion website, was released in 1996 to educate voters—and is now accessible via CHM’s collection.
Bill Clinton and Al Gore extensively used email to reach voters, and the “Information Superhighway” was a key plank in their platform. Jerry Brown used Compuserve. Ross Perot coordinated his campaign with internet search engine and publishing tool WAIS. Prodigy, AOL, and Usenet all hosted information and lively debates.
CHM is decoding the intersection of technology, politics, elections, and democracy in our digital world. Discover related artifacts, oral histories, blogs, and CHM Live events from our collection.
Ronald Reagan is elected 40th president of the United States, winning a second term in 1984. A former governor of California as well as a film and television actor, Reagan was a natural on camera, arguably America’s first celebrity president. Less well known is the role astrology played in his presidency, a passion his wife Nancy frequently turned to for guidance. The Digitcomp DR-70 Astrology Computer was used by Nancy Reagan’s astrologer Joan Quigley to determine the timing of important events such as the take-off times of Air Force One, press conferences, and even the best dates for signing treaties.
Computer-based electronic and optical scan voting systems debuted in US elections, increasing the speed of counting votes. Critics have cited security and transparency issues with some electronic voting machines.
Television played a critical role in the civil rights movement. Americans were shocked to see the protests and police violence on TV in their own homes, helping to mobilize white Northerners to support the civil rights movement and effect change. Black voters continued to face barriers at polling stations with suppression tactics like voting taxes and literacy tests.
The new medium of television and the time-honored politics of fear collided in the 1964 presidential election when US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s election campaign released “Daisy,” a television advertisement with a scary message: “vote for me or the world will end,” implying that his rival, Barry Goldwater, was an unpredictable maniac. “Daisy” is one of the most famous television political advertisements in history, credited with introducing emotion to political advertising, which until then had been fact-based. The ad aired on NBC’s Monday Night at the Movies on September 7, 1964. Watch it now!
The 1952 election campaign was the first in the US to make use of television. Though Eisenhower appeared stiff and unflattering on-screen, his opponent Stevenson refused to appear on TV at all, finding it distasteful. While polls gave the election to Stevenson, CBS election coverage relied on UNIVAC, a new electronic computer, which predicted an Eisenhower landslide. UNIVAC was right. The computer’s TV debut captivated an audience already enthralled by new technology.
The first television broadcast hit the airways in London with the transmission of the play The Man with the Flower in His Mouth, laying the foundation for home broadcasting.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans started to have televisions in their homes. In 1950 only around 9 percent of Americans owned TVs. By 1960 that figure jumped above 80 percent.
Franklin D. Roosevelt skillfully used radio to win the 1932 presidential election, defeating Herbet Hoover in a landslide. Radio helped make Roosevelt into a national figure by presenting a man with a personable, competent, and hopeful message. The topics he spoke about ranged from the New Deal, drought, and unemployment to Europe’s battle with fascism and American military progress during World War II. Roosevelt’s informal, conversational “fireside chats” were broadcast country-wide and kept a frightened nation informed and hopeful.
The National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) is formed, making it the first permanent, full-service radio network in the US. NBC began coverage of national political events, first covering the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 1928.
Radio played a big role in the 1924 presidential election, which was a three-way contest between Demoratic, Republican, and Progressive candidates. In December of 1923, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to address the American people on broadcast radio upon succeeding to the office after the sudden death of Warren G. Harding. The following year, Coolidge made history again when the largest radio audience ever tuned in to the broadcast of his final campaign speech. By the early 1930s, about 90 percent of Americans owned a radio.
After decades of activism, the 1920 presidential election was the first in American history where women had the right to vote at the federal level. Their movement made use of newsreels and newspapers in local movie theaters to bring their cause to the public. Warren G. Harding’s support of universal suffrage and his ability to capture the votes of women, was a significant factor in his 1920 presidential election victory over Woodrow Wilson. However, it would be decades before Black women and men could exercise the same right in many Southern states.
American businessmen John Harris and Harry Davis opened one of the world’s first public movie theaters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on June 19. By the 1920s movie theaters provided entertainment and public access to information through newsreels, short documentary films containing news stories and current affairs.
The US Constitution declares that a census of all persons shall be taken every 10 years. In the American model, these results are used for a basic population count and to determine how many seats in the House of Representatives will be allotted per congressional district. In 1890, manual methods were creating a serious bottleneck so American inventor Herman Hollerith created a machine automating the process by using punched cards. With Hollerith’s machine, a quick count of the population was available in six weeks.
The telegraph was a new communications technology invented two decades earlier. Lincoln used the new medium to great effect, telegraphing his generals to motivate them in battle and to propel his leadership vision to the front. The telegraph also opened people’s horizons, bringing international news to everyone’s local paper, the telegraph’s “killer app.”
William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone demonstrated the electric telegraph while Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail perfected a coding system for the telegraph that is adopted worldwide. The new technology could send messages over long distances faster than previous methods like mail on horseback, making news travel much faster and easier.