8 ways technology has shaped the ’08 elections

Technology has played a particularly prominent role in the 2008 elections — and it isn’t just the typical silliness over whether a [candidate really claimed to have invented a key piece of technology. Throughout the year we’ve seen technological advances used both for good, such as using Short Message Service to announce a vice presidential pick, and for bad, such as hacking into another vice presidential pick’s private e-mail account. In this story, we’ll take a look at the eight techiest moments of the 2008 presidential race, including YouTube debates, viral videos and e-voting controversies. (For pictures of these events, view a slideshow version of this story.)

The YouTube debates

Back when Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John Edwards and Mike Huckabee still had a chance to win the presidency, CNN hosted a debate in which Republican and Democratic presidential candidates responded to questions sent over the Web and broadcast through YouTube. The so-called “YouTube debates” drew from more than 2,000 videos posted online, and for the first time gave voters from across the country direct access to the people running for the nation’s highest office. As with anything related to the Internet and politics, however, the debate was not without controversy. Specifically, some viewers were displeased that CNN picked the questions that would be aired, while other partisans were upset that people from opposing parties were allowed to ask questions to their party’s candidates.

Obama’s adventures with viral videos

“YouTube moments” have been a staple of American politics since 2006, when former Senator George Allen was recorded referring to a volunteer for the rival Jim Webb campaign as “macaca.” This year, Barack Obama had two major viral videos directly impact his campaign, one for good and one for bad. In the former case, an enthusiastic supporter calling herself “ObamaGirl” made a series of hilariously over-the-top videos proclaiming her undying crush to her favorite junior senator from Illinois. In the latter case, Obama was hurt by a viral video of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, shouting “God damn America!” during one of his sermons. What the YouTube can giveth, the YouTube can also taketh away.

Tech heavyweights make their endorsements

Every year, big tech companies lobby the federal government to act on several issues, from topics such as immunity from lawsuits over the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program, to legislation that would mandate network neutrality. This year, several heavyweights in the tech industry have made waves through their endorsements of the presidential candidates. Among those pulling the lever for John McCain include Cisco CEO John Chambers, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Tech leaders in the Obama camp, meanwhile, include craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Motorola CEO Ed Zander and Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s director of global public policy and government affairs.

Super-sizing convention networks

With tens of thousands of tech-savvy politicians, aides, wonks, delegates and journalists descending on Denver and St. Paul, Minn., this past summer for the Democratic and Republican conventions, respectively, carriers and ISPs had to work overtime to make sure that their networks could handle the surges in Web and cellular traffic. Qwest, for instance, laid down an additional 3,400 voice lines and 2,600 data lines at Denver’s Pepsi Center, and also upgraded its infrastructure with 3,344 miles of fiber and 140 miles of copper and coaxial cable. Over in St. Paul, meanwhile, Verizon spent more than US$4 million to upgrade its network in anticipation of an expected 33% increase in voice calls and 150% increase in data traffic in and around the convention site.

Obama uses SMS to announce vice president

In a move that generated plenty of media hype over the summer, the Obama campaign became the first presidential team in U.S. history to announce its vice presidential pick to supporters by sending a text message to their cell phones. The surprise was ruined, however, when the Obama campaign’s decision to select Joe Biden was leaked to the press hours before the announcement officially went public.

McCain advisor links McCain with BlackBerry creation

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Democrat Al Gore took a lot of flack for saying that he “took great initiative in creating the Internet.” Even though Gore was referring to securing government investments in technology that would eventually lead to the widespread adoption of the Internet, such as the Information Infrastructure and Technology Act, Gore was subsequently lambasted in the press for having claimed to have “invented” the Internet.

Similarly, McCain advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin in 2008 pointed to his BlackBerry and said McCain’s work in the Senate helped to create it. While Holtz-Eakin meant that McCain’s work on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation helped foster market conditions that led to a proliferation of smart wireless devices, many in the press pounced on McCain’s supposed delusion and produced headlines such as “McCain BlackBerry easily connects with Gore Internet.”

E-voting sparks more anxiety

Just what the country needs: more electoral chaos out of Palm Beach County, Fla. Yet that is exactly what happened this summer when the county that became infamous for its hanging chads during the 2000 elections accidentally excluded 3,700 ballots during a recount, despite the fact that the county thought it had fixed its problems by implementing a sophisticated e-voting system. Other e-voting hotspots to watch this year include Denver, where the Denver Election Commission has done a complete overhaul of its touchscreen voting system, as well as New Jersey, where a judge blocked the release of a report that examined the source code used in state voting machines.

Palin’s e-mail hacked

A mere three weeks after she first emerged on the national scene as McCain’s pick for vice president, Alaska governor Sarah Palin learned that messages from her private e-mail account had been hacked and posted online by the hacker group “anonymous,” which had previously been most famous for its Web attacks on the Church of Scientology. Less than a month later, federal officials indicted 20-year-old David Kernell of Tennessee for hacking into the account. If found guilty, Kernell could face a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

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