Published June 1979 — Download PDF of the original newspaper column
Byrd's-Eye View By U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd Computer-Age Politics Without doubt, computers have transformed our way of life. Computers balance accounts and keep books, record bank deposits and withdrawals, check the designs of dams and bridges, steer spaceships, and set type for newspapers and books. In industry, computers control the machinery to make bakery goods, chemicals, steel products, paper and many other items. It was only a matter of time before computers began to have an impact on our system of representative government. Computerized direct-mail techniques are often used by various groups, as well as campaign strategists, to pinpoint potential supporters and contributors. Names and addresses can be stored in a computer and cross-referenced so that people are classified according to their beliefs about specific issues. Thus, a group favoring balanced budgets may hire a direct mail consultant to send letters and telegrams to a specially chosen group of people, who are also known to favor balanced budgets. The letters, which show no sign of being processed by a direct-mail company, attempt to raise money, drum up votes, or generate pressure on legislators by asking supporters to flood them with pre-printed postcards. One of the largest direct-mail political consultants has collected the names of more than 8 million people in the course of 14 years. In 1977, the consultant sent out 75 million letters and solicited $50 million for various causes and candidates. Millions of dollars have been garnered from the voting public by such mailing businesses for themselves in conducting these mail operations for particular causes and candidates. There are many, and I am one, who fear that direct-mail techniques are helping to undermine the principal political parties and the political system, and make it more difficult to govern. Traditionally, political parties have built the broad coalitions needed to find a compromise among competing factions. Supporters of direct-mail techniques say that the computer is simply an automated version of the ward heelers of old-style politics, who kept in touch with voters' concerns and relayed them to politicians. To my mind, a well-reasoned, personal letter has more impact than a hundred pre-printed postcards. These latter, by and large, are often simplistic, biased, and sometimes distortive of the facts.