Podcast: Political Machines — Innovations that let people be heard

Laurel Fritzsch interviews Rachna Choudhry for our podcast series.

A lobbyist and a Congressional staffer walk into a dinner party. It sounds like the start of some sort of inside-the-Beltway joke; instead, it’s an invention story. Rachna Choudhry and Marci Harris found common ground on a vexing issue–when constituents write in to Congress, there is no way of the writer knowing if the message has been received or for Congressional staffers to know that it’s coming from a real person. The result of that conversation is Popvox, a web tool that verifies, aggregates, and simplifies communication with Congress.

Rachna sat down with Laurel Fritzsch to talk about the process behind developing Popvox in our latest podcast. Click here to listen in.

Note: This post is not an endorsement of any product.

Behind the Scenes at the Political Machines symposium

On Nov 2 & 3, 2012 the Lemelson Center hosted Political Machines: Innovations in Campaigns and Electionsthe latest edition of our annual symposium series, New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation. By all accounts, the weekend was a great success!  If you weren’t able to make it, here’s an inside look at some of the events and talks…

Friday Nov 2 – Final preparations and “The Political Party”

If you had been in the Lemelson Center offices on the afternoon before the symposium, you would have seen a flurry of activity as we made final preparations – setting up banners, printing name tags, confirming the food order, etc. At 3pm, the team assembled in the Warner Bros. Theater for a final tech run-through with Keith Madden, the projectionist, and Robb Rineer, our technician from Meridia, who gave us a preview of our audience response system. When we broke at about 4pm, the team sprung into action – setting up tables, placing banners around the Museum, escorting C-SPAN’s camera crew to the theater, and generally gearing up for the arrival of our guests.

The Political Party, outside "The American Presidency" and "The First Ladies" exhibitions. Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

When we welcomed our symposium speakers to “The Political Party,” a kick-off reception held, appropriately, right outside two of the Museum’s most popular exhibitions: The American Presidency and The First Ladies, they found the 3rd floor atrium transformed into an elegant reception with an election motif. One side, lit in blue, featured Chicago-style hot dogs and other treats reminiscent of Barack Obama’s “Windy City.” Across the atrium, lit in red, were shepherd’s pie, New England clam chowder, and Boston cream pie from Mitt Romney’s “Beantown.” Several of our invited speakers—trained as political historians, campaign workers, etc.—took a few moments to enjoy the collections in The American Presidency, before heading down to the theater for the symposium’s opening act.

David Schwartz. Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

Friday Nov 2, 8pm – Ghosts in the Machine, but David Schwartz is a Pro

David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, opened the symposium with his talk on the history of presidential campaign ads. I began to feel slightly ill as the Museum’s Internet connection decided to bonk just as David began clicking on streaming video links from his online exhibition, The Living Room Candidate. But being a consummate pro, David stayed cool and used the temporary glitch to describe the genesis of the site in the late 1990s. In particular, he noted how innovative it was at that time to stream videos back in the days of dial-up connections before (…tongue planted firmly in cheek…) “the blazingly fast speeds of today’s Internet.” That drew lots of laughs and by then, the goblins that temporarily interrupted the Internet connection departed and left David to click freely and finish his wonderful talk. Disaster averted!

Saturday Nov 3, 10:30-5pm – Symposium Saturday

The symposium continued with a full day of panels and talks by our amazing symposium speakers. There’s no way I could capture all of their smart ideas in a short blog post.  However, our intrepid communications team—led by Erin Blasco, Kate Wiley, and Michelle DelCarlo—live-Tweeted the event so you can get a flavor of the proceedings.  Check out http://twitter.com/amhistorymuseum or http://twitter.com/SI_Invention or search for #PoliticalMachines for the full blow-by-blow.

Keynote speaker Darrell West. Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite moments from the symposium:

  • Our keynote speaker, Darrell M. West, described the trend in campaign technologies from broadcasting to “nano-casting”…
    • Broadcasting—building ads with broad appeal for the three TV networks
    • Narrow-casting—creating ads for cable TV, tailored to a particular regional service area or a particular channel’s viewership, e.g. young men watching ESPN
    • Micro-casting—using targeted emails with links to YouTube ads to reach VERY specific groups, e.g. conservative blacks in Cincinnati, Ohio, that oppose  gay marriage
    • Nano-casting—using mobile phones, geo-location services, and consumer information to send text messages or emails with precise, individually-tailored messages—e.g. “Dear Sally, please vote today, your polling place is 123 Elm Street.”
  • Jon Grinspan explained the innovative role of alcohol in elections during the mid-1800s. Westward expansion into Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio meant more access to grains like wheat and corn, which created bumper crops of hard liquors like bourbon. Saloons were among the biggest buildings in frontier towns, so they served as party headquarters and polling places. Party operatives traded booze for votes—but not too much, otherwise, passed-out voters would never make it to the polls!
  • Zephyr Teachout explained how the emergence of the Internet challenged the traditional power structure of campaigns, previously ruled by a triumvirate of political, finance, and communications directors. Eventually campaigns made room for a fourth director—the Director of Internet Organizing, a role she pioneered in Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign—and we’ve never looked back.

Vanderbilt’s Sarah Igo, who has studied the history of George Gallup and the birth of modern opinion research, chats with Gallup’s modern-day counterpart, Jon Cohen, the chief pollster at The Washington Post. Courtesy of Eric Hintz.

  • Sarah Igo explained that we used to call public opinion researchers “pollers.” However, sometime during the 1940s, a newspaper columnist, skeptical of their methodology, called them the “pollsters” because it sounded like “hucksters.” The name stuck…
  • Jon Cohen, polling director at The Washington Post, said that there is still skepticism about the methods of today’s pollsters, but that sampling—and the bias that inevitably creeps in—is unavoidable. To illustrate the point he said: “Next time you go to the doctor and they ask for a blood sample, tell them ‘No—take the whole thing!’”
  • Thad E. Hall wondered aloud why we could buy airline tickets and do our banking via the Internet, but we have yet to implement Internet voting. The key difference is that, with online purchases, the identity of the purchaser is tied to the transaction. However, with voting, the trick is to maintain security while separating the identity of the voter from his or her vote—and we are still figuring out that trick.
  • David Becker described many of the problems with our present system of election administration, but quickly brought things back to proper perspective. He doubted whether any corporation (or nation besides the United States) could get nearly 117 million people to all do the same thing (in this case, vote) on one given day, and do it in an orderly fashion absent any riots or violence. There are always a few problems, but they are minor relative to the overall achievement that is Election Day. His final charge was classic: “On Tuesday, go out and hug your local election worker!”

Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

Meanwhile, out in the Lefrak Lobby, visitors were treated to an up-close and personal view of dozens of historical campaign buttons, posters, and fliers from our museum collections dating as far back as the 1860s. It was fun to see an Abraham Lincoln-Andrew Johnson ticket from 1864 on the table next to a Spanish-language poster supporting JFK and LBJ from 1960! Plus, over the lunch break, our visitors got an up-close and personal audience with speakers Sarah Igo, Thad Hall, and Zephyr Teachout, who graciously signed copies of their books.

Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

Monday Nov 5, 9am – Reflections and Thank You Notes

After a well-earned day of rest on Sunday, everyone came back to work on Monday and chatted around the water cooler about the symposium. We all agreed that we’d had some very high-caliber speakers, all of whom were smart, funny, and engaging in describing the role of “political machinery” in the realms of Advertising, Campaigning, Polling, and Voting.  Thanks again to our tremendous speakers!

Wednesday Nov 7 – The Day After the Election

On November 7, the day after Obama’s re-election to a second term, some prognosticators had already begun speculating about who would run for President in 2016. No rest for the election-weary, I guess. Similarly, my teammate Michelle DelCarlo innocently asked me—“So what do you think will be the theme for next year’s symposium?” COME ON ALREADY!! Let’s enjoy this one for a few weeks, before we start speculating about 2013.

We’ll start brainstorming for our 2013 symposium in the New Year—maybe exploring Civil War military technologies, or sports inventions, from safer football helmets to instant replay. Then again, in the tradition of participatory democracy—what do YOU think would make a compelling theme for the 2013 symposium?

“Political Machines” Speakers in the News

We are fortunate to have many fine speakers participating in our upcoming symposium, Political Machines: Innovations in Campaigns and Elections, taking place on November 2 and 3 here at the National Museum of American History. Our speakers are recognized leaders in their fields, so as you might expect, they appear from time to time in national newspapers, on TV, etc.  Here’s a sampling of some previous media appearances by our fabulous symposium speakers:

David Schwartz
Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image


Darrell M. West
Vice President, Governance Studies and Director, Center for Technology Innovation, Brookings Institution

Jon Grinspan
Doctoral Candidate, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

Zephyr Teachout
Associate Professor, Fordham Law School

Sarah Igo
Associate Professor of History, Sociology, and Political Science, Vanderbilt University

Jon Cohen
Director of Polling, The Washington Post


David Becker
Director of Election Initiatives, Pew Center on the States

Thad E. Hall
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Utah

You can also check out our latest podcast to get a preview of each session from our moderators—Lemelson Center Senior Historian Joyce Bedi, Lemelson Center Deputy Director Jeff Brodie, Political History Curator Larry Bird, and me. Did you enjoy learning about our speakers and their research? Come see and hear the real thing this weekend!

From the Collections: Voting Technology

My first voting experience was the presidential election of 1988…and I was three years old. My daycare provider brought me, my infant brother, and her young daughter to the polls and a photographer from my hometown’s newspaper snapped a photo of us. I was not even tall enough to be concealed by the privacy curtain and was looking up in awe, probably mesmerized by the curtain and the lever. (My mom saved the photo, but alas could not find it in time for this blog.)

Since that first time, now being of age to actually vote, I’ve performed my democratic privilege and duty three times—via gear and lever machine, absentee ballot, and paper ballot machine. However, I don’t think I’ve been awed by how I was voting, as opposed to the meaning behind my vote, since that first time as a toddler.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about the technology I’ve voted with recently because this year’s New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation symposium, “Political Machines,” is examining the technology that has been used—and will be used—during campaigns and elections. (Though I actually had to call the DC Board of Elections and Ethics because I couldn’t remember how I voted in 2008. I was just excited to be voting in person for president for the first time!)

As you might imagine, the National Museum of American History has wonderful collections documenting the history of voting. In fact, an exhibition titled Vote! The Machinery of Democracy was on view between June 2004 and February 2005. Fortunately, that exhibition is still available online. Here I’ve pulled out just a few of the voting technologies and machines that Vote! explores.


Debating the Candidates, Family Style

On November 2 and 3, the Lemelson Center will be exploring the innovations that enable our democratic system to work and the technologies that have featured prominently in past campaigns and elections in our annual symposium, Political Machines. In the following post, which originally appeared on the National Museum of American History’s
O Say Can You See?, associate curator Debra Ann Hashim shares how televised debates spurred conversation amongst her family.

Federal government and politics have surrounded me for most of my life. I grew up in Washington, D.C., the hub of the nation for topics of national importance, where people tend to respond to the events in the national news. Even though I didn’t really start thinking about politics as a participant until I reached high school age, in the early 1970s, I have some vivid earlier memories of hearing conversations about politics at the dinner table.

The photograph of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon is from the debate held in Chicago on September 26, 1960, at the CBS studio. This was the first Presidential debate in history and it was televised, attracting 60% of American households with televisions.

Sometimes these conversations were lively. At first they were especially so when friends or out of town family members joined us; later on, I was often the one who stirred things up when I started asking questions. My older brother generally sided with my parents in these conversations, while my two younger brothers were too young to get involved. I was the “bleeding heart liberal,” so named by my father, and was usually alone in the views I held. However, that never stopped me from opening my mouth.

One of the activities we always enjoyed in an election year was discussing the candidates. I think the televised presidential and vice presidential debates offered the easiest way to get informed and made for the most immediate family conversation, whether in person or over the phone. Yet for us as a family who thrived on point-counterpoint, for quite a period of time we had to rely on the regular news and TV spots for information. There were no televised debates after 1960 until 1976.

I was too young to recall the very first presidential debates in 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. My first strong memories of talking about issues of the candidates were in 1972 when I was a junior in high school. I was against the Vietnam War and supported George McGovern—even though I remember feeling sad for his first running mate for Vice President, Thomas Eagleton, with the disclosure of his past health history. In terms of family conversation, we actually had some accord this time on certain issues, if not party preference. My older brother, who was of draft age, had filed for conscientious objector status and lost. We were worried sick.

By 1976, at the age of 21, I was right there by the television, anxious to watch and listen to the debates between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. That was the first year I would be able to vote in a presidential election, so it was especially important to me to become as informed as possible. I felt important, too. I would finally begin to understand the feeling of being a citizen who could vote.

Today, I can’t wait to watch these debates; they are one of my favorite parts of any campaign cycle. They offer an opportunity to hear the candidates address the issues in their own words, however rehearsed they may be. I look forward to being able to “get into it” with friends and family even though, as far as the family is concerned, I’m still their bleeding heart liberal.

The Division of Political History is fortunate to have in the collections some objects associated with presidential debates. Below are just a few:

These two chairs were used by Kennedy and Nixon in the televised debates. They are the same chairs that you see in the above photograph.

This photograph of then Governor Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford was from the 1976 debates. These were the first presidential debates since 1960 and they were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. 1976 was the year of the Bicentennial and the sense of history was very much in the descriptions of the debates given by political commentators. About 53.5% of American households with televisions watched.

This photograph, taken from the 1996 exhibition We the People: Winning the Vote held at this museum, depicts the podiums and chairs used at the 1976 debates.

Debra Anne Hashim is an associate curator in the Division of Political History.

Political Machines

Well, it’s mid-September and we’re deep into the 2012 presidential campaign. Active campaigning for the primaries began well over a year ago in the summer of 2011, and as usual the campaign season has been nasty, brutish, and long.  Are you suffering from PCF—Presidential Campaign Fatigue? Fortunately, the Lemelson Center has an antidote.

On November 2 and 3, the Lemelson Center is marking this election year by presenting “Political Machines: Innovations in Campaigns and Elections,” a symposium that examines the role of invention and technology in electoral politics. Through this lens, we will temporarily shift the focus away from today’s candidates and issues to examine the critical role that “political machinery” such as campaign advertisements, voting machines, and automated opinion polls plays in our democracy. When these technologies work well, they often go unnoticed; when they fail (e.g., hanging chads, “Dewey Beats Truman!”), the consequences can be momentous.

The symposium will be held on November 2–3, 2012, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. All events will be free and open to the public. Our sessions will employ formats typically seen on the campaign trail, including a keynote address, stump speeches, and interactive “town hall” Q&A sessions with our speakers. Audience members will also be able to vote on questions posed during the symposium, using a handheld audience response system or “clicker” provided by our technology partners at Meridia. Watch out, Oprah!

So who’s speaking? “Political Machines” will bring together scholars, government policymakers, campaign strategists, and members of the news media to focus on the historic and contemporary role of technology in various aspects of the electoral process, including Advertising, Campaigning, Polling, and Voting. Here’s a sneak peek at our sessions and speakers:

Advertising: Friday, Nov. 2, 8:00–9:30pm

Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower was the first presidential candidate to make use of thirty-second television ads, in 1952. Courtesy of www.thelivingroomcandidate.org.

In our Advertising session, David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, will present selections from his online exhibit, The Living Room Candidate, which features over 300 television commercials from every presidential election since 1952. Schwartz will examine the persuasive techniques employed in various historical ads and explore the role of various technological platforms—from biographical films to thirty-second television ads to YouTube—in the evolution of political advertising.

Keynote Address: Saturday, Nov. 3, 10:30–11:30am

After some introductory remarks by my boss, Arthur Molella, our keynote speaker will be Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. In a wide-ranging address, West will set the table for the sessions to follow by describing the historical, contemporary, and future role of technology and innovation in the electoral process and in governance.

Campaigning: Saturday, Nov. 3, 11:30–12:30pm

How have candidates employed innovative campaign techniques and new technologies to deliver their messages, raise money, and garner grassroots support from voters? This session will examine the technology and material culture of campaigning—from buttons and hand-painted convention signs to the internet. One of our featured speakers will be Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor at Fordham Law School and, formerly, director of internet organizing with “Dean for America.” Teachout pioneered in using the internet and social media platforms during Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and coauthored a book about her experience, Mousepads, Shoe Leather, and Hope: Lessons from the Howard Dean Campaign for the Future of Internet Politics.

In 1964, GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater used this clever can in his unsuccessful campaign against Lyndon B. Johnson. Courtesy of NMAH.

Polling: Saturday, Nov. 3, 2:00–3:00pm

Pioneering pollster George Gallup.

How have candidates and journalists utilized innovations in polling and statistical analysis to discern the mood of the electorate? In turn, how have citizens come to trust polling data as a reliable source of information? In this session, Vanderbilt professor Sarah Igo, author of The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, will describe the emergence of modern public opinion research in the 1930s among door-to-door pollsters like George Gallup and Bud Roper. For a more contemporary view, Jon Cohen, director of polling at the Washington Post, will describe what it’s like to use automated phone banks and statistical software packages as a 21st-century pollster.

Voting: Saturday, Nov. 3, 3:30–4:30pm

What are the technologies that underpin the right to vote—our most cherished democratic institution? In this session, we will examine the current state of election administration and explore a multitude of web-based and mobile technologies that may someday transform how we register, receive our ballots, and cast our votes. For example, David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States, will describe efforts to improve our DMV databases and other technological processes involved in voter registration and identification. Also, University of Utah professor Thad E. Hall will describe how we may someday cast our ballots, as detailed in his book Point, Click, and Vote: The Future of Internet Voting.

The Votomatic punched-card recorder and its confusing “butterfly ballots” were at the center of the controversial 2000 Bush-Gore election. This particular voting machine was collected by curators from the Museum’s Division of Political History. Courtesy of NMAH.

Book Signings; Objects Out of Storage: Saturday, Nov. 3—times TBA

For the 1980 Reagan-Carter campaign, Herman Silvers and Cornel Tanassy wrote the single, “Hello Ronnie, Good-bye Jimmy.” Courtesy of NMAH Archives Center.

In addition, on Saturday, November 3, we will schedule some book signings with our speakers and bring out some classic campaign materials from the Museum’s collections so visitors can get a closer look. For example, we’ve pulled some amazing presidential campaign tunes from the Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music.

Here at the Lemelson Center, we believe that invention and innovation are everywhere … even in campaigns and elections. So if you’re tired of the standard campaign coverage and want to look at this election from a different perspective, we hope you’ll join us on November 2 and 3 for an exploration of our “Political Machines.”