How to influence a Presidential election with bogus technology

Immediately following the first 1980 Presidential debate between incumbent Jimmy Carter and then California governor Ronald Reagan, AT&T provided two 900 numbers allowing viewers to call in, at $0.50 per call, to vote for the candidate whom they thought won the debate. Nearly 700,000 viewers did so and the real-time results of that poll were prominently featured in the real-time ABC news coverage that followed the debate. It was a new era for technology and ABC and AT&T were right there on the front lines.

Interestingly however was that immediately after the 900 numbers were announced, Reagan was seen with a whopping 33 point lead over Carter; the results showed %67 of the viewers siding with Reagan and only %33 of the viewers siding with Carter. As the poll continued these numbers did not change, the news room’s on-screen display was locked at 67 and 33. It was not until hours later that the numbers began to diverge, but by then the nation had already dealt with the apparent fact that Reagan had won the election by a near landslide – hey, it was televised!

Knowing a fair amount about digital logic at that time I was soon suspicious. The ABC news coverage, idling while trying to find interesting things to talk about, mentioned that more Carter supporters were complaining about blocked phone lines than were Reagan supporters. Then it clicked: 67, or 66.6667 was exactly twice that of 33.3333! AT&T had screwed up and had managed to allow exactly twice as many pro Reagan calls to get through as pro Carter – an easy mistake for digital computer circuits which always deal with numbers as powers of two.

If the system had been operating correctly and in a balanced way, both 900 numbers would have been saturated with calls and both numbers would have been locked at %50 *until* callers stopped calling in on one of the two numbers. We should not have seen a definitive result until hours after the poll had begun. Clear and unmistakable evidence of broken technology. Yet ABC reported that AT&T had assured us the system was working perfectly. Bull shit.

The damage had unfortunately already been done. Viewers took away from this first massively public poll that a whopping majority of voters prefered Reagan. Although the final election confirmed this result we do not know to this day how much the bogus phone poll influenced the 1980 Presidential election and, to my knowledge, no one has ever admitted to this complete travesty of election bias.

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