How To: Go High Tech: Computer Campaigns

Magazine cover with "Elections" in blue text against white background, and "grassroots strategies for change" in black text

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 1, "Elections: Grassroots Strategies for Change." Find more from that issue here.

Special thanks to Kim Blankenship and Jim O'Reilly for assistance in preparing this article.


In 1982 Mickey Michaux ran for Congress in North Carolina's Second Congressional District. As a black, Michaux faced serious obstacles in his campaign in a district where no black had been elected to Congress since Reconstruction. He led two other candidates in the Democratic primary with 45 percent of the vote in a district that is only 40 percent black. Michaux lost in the runoff, but his partial success reflected a number of innovations in his campaign, including the use of a microcomputer by Jim O'Reilly of Durham, North Carolina.

O'Reilly began applying computers to politics while in graduate school at Duke University. He used the school's large computer to maintain mailing lists for progressive groups, analyze voter registration and voting patterns by precincts, and process computerized county voter registration lists of up to 200,000 names for mailings and "street" lists for canvassers.

In 1981 O'Reilly bought a microcomputer and began a business as a freelance social science computer consultant:


With a micro, I discovered that with the exception of processing huge lists — which I still do by buying time on a mainframe — everything I had been doing I could do on the little machine, and at virtually no out-of-pocket cost.

I found it very liberating. I could experiment with different approaches and programs, without worrying about the bill. That freedom enlarged my imagination about what is possible with a computer.


There are many microcomputers on the market, including the Apple, the Kaypro, and the IBM Personal Computer. For a purchase price of about $2,000 to $3,000 you get the computer with the basic programs needed for the applications described here. Since there are already about one million microcomputers in American homes, even a low-budget campaign should be able to find someone willing to put theirs to service in an election.

There are limits to the capabilities of microcomputers. They generally can be used best in small-scale campaigns because they can store only limited amounts of information, but any list that has more than a dozen names can be handled more efficiently on a machine than by hand.


Here are some of the ways a microcomputer was used in the Michaux campaign and others. All applications require a low level of skill and anyone who has studied a basic user's manual or had a few lessons should be able to perform them fairly easily.

Fundraising: A microcomputer can eliminate the need for "Dear Friend" letters. A fundraising letter is first typed into the computer. Corrections can be made before it is printed out. The names and addresses of possible contributors are also typed. With simple instructions, the computer will print personalized letters, inserting a different name and address each time. Personalized letters bring in more contributions.

Mailing Lists: Because editing and revising can be performed simply on a computer, mailing lists can be kept up to date for a variety of needs besides fundraising. The computer can sort the lists by zip codes so that bulk mailings can be done faster. This is important in a close campaign, where staying in touch with voters is critical.

Targeting Votes: A list of registered voters — with information such as race, party, and responses to questionnaires or surveys — is typed into the computer, which can then print a list answering basic questions such as: Which voters are black? Which precincts have a history of voting for progressive issues? It can also answer more elaborate questions such as: If 20 percent more voters were registered in the fifth precinct, how would this affect our chances of winning? Organizers can use this information to determine where to concentrate their efforts. The results can also boost motivation for campaign workers. Instead of blindly pounding the pavement, canvassers can be told, "We need 200 more votes in this precinct. Here's a list of possible voters."

Election Day Targeting: As soon as information about the number of votes cast in various precincts becomes available, it can be typed into the computer. This information can be compared to known statistics about the precinct's voting history. Organizers can then determine where to concentrate last-minute efforts to get out the vote.

Surveys and Polls: The computer makes surveys and polls on voter attitudes more efficient and cost-effective. Surveyors can have the answers to their questionnaires fed directly to the computer. The results are produced almost immediately. (When done by hand this process is painstaking and not always accurate.) The results can be used to decide what issues to stress in a campaign or to whom direct mail should be sent. Polls can also "legitimize" specific issues: "Our studies show that 85 percent of people in the county are concerned about chemical wastes."

The key issue in the use of microcomputers, says O'Reilly, is whether people are willing to invest their time and money in the technology:


The microcomputer is a real valuable tool. But it's a thing. It can't do anything without someone to make it work. Microcomputers are a combination of hardware, software (the programs), and politically active people willing to give the time to get some mastery of it. It's critically important in applying computers in politics, and in any other areas, not to approach the situation with preconceived ideas about what can be done. And not to treat computers as peripheral mechanical items. With imagination and experimentation, important and unforeseen new ideas can be developed. That's the secret potential of micros; because they are becoming so cheap, one can weave them into new places and applications that can have a big impact — if we are open to the possibilities and are willing to try new things.

Reams and reams of neatly printed paper can be dangerously impressive, but Jesse Helms's conservative juggernaut, the Congressional Club, is built on computer mailing lists and computer technology. A lot of progressives see technology as anti-political. They think of computers as distant cousins to nuclear reactors and MX missiles. That's simply fatuous.