It was the winter of 1982, and I needed a job. Two years earlier, I had worked on the unsuccessful reelection campaign of Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.). Prior to my work on Bayh’s campaigns, I had spent many years in the U.S. Senate compiling lists the Senate computer services would use for Bayh’s franked mail program.
So when I was approached early in 1982 by a company tasked with acquiring voter registration files that could be used to match against the AFL-CIO membership and identify whether or not members were registered to vote, I was intrigued. Once compiled, those lists could be sold to political campaigns.
The job piqued my interest for a few reasons. First, I knew from experience that finding computerized databases hadn’t exactly been easy in the 1970s. So I was intrigued about the prospect of doing this in the political world. During Bayh’s reelect in 1980 we certainly didn’t have the benefit of computerized voter lists. Any campaign with a large canvass, phone or mail effort would be greatly assisted by having access to lists like this. Not only would the campaign be sure it was contacting registered voters, but it might have the ability for enhanced targeting—by party, age, race or the likelihood to cast a ballot.
So I took the job and began what has been a more than 30-year odyssey of working with voter files and being an eyewitness and participant to a part of campaigning that has virtually exploded in American politics. In many respects, those of us working in this field at the time were inventing a new business—one that would grow and change as modern technology assumed the dominant role it now occupies in our daily lives.
The computerization of voter files
As this new world of political voter files developed, the computerization of America was still in its infancy. As it matured, so did the voter file business. After looking back on 32 years in this game, I can try to articulate the vast changes we’ve seen over that period of time, and to understand exactly how the face of campaigning has changed as a result. These three decades have been marked by tectonic shifts in the way politics and political communication is conducted. More specifically, three major developments have brought us to where we are today.
While creating an inventory of computerized voter files during those first years in the early 1980s, it became clear that there was beginning to be progress toward greater computerization of these government run databases. As that inventory of information was updated each year, increasing numbers of town, county and state voter lists were computerized. Government officials were quickly learning about the economic reasons to computerize their databases, as well as the obvious efficiencies and time saving. As these databases were being made available to political candidates, those who were elected took office with a greater understanding of the benefits.
The problem: It was a cumbersome process. It required expensive mainframe computers—machines that could only be operated by trained programmers and required large investments to buy or rent the hardware and software, as well as the physical plants necessary to house them. When I entered the business, it was into a company that had its own mainframe. I would never have been able to start this business on my own.
In 1984, while I was just getting my feet wet with computerized voter files and the selling of voter lists, labels and direct mail to campaigns willing to use them, I found myself pitching a campaign that would change the entire way I approached the business. Then- Rep. Al Gore was running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee, and he wanted computerized data for the campaign. Gore’s campaign manager, Hal Malchow, hired my company to build a statewide voter file.
From a combination of typed and mimeographed precinct lists we had to keypunch to a myriad of computer media—from floppy disks in many sizes to 9-track tapes and 8-track cartridges. The database was built and telephone numbers appended by an outside vendor. I suggested to Hal that the Tennessee Democratic Party ought to be convinced to make the database theirs. By having the state party make the data available to candidates at all levels, it would save the Gore campaign money, put the state party in the business of providing services to its candidates, make computer data available to candidates for the first time and allow a vendor like me to work with candidates I would have never been able to reach otherwise. To me, it made sense for all concerned.