Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


The Costs of Fixing Problems

I enjoyed reading Heather Gerkin’s article: “The Invisible Election.”

I am one of the few people to have gotten a pretty good view of the invisible election, and the reality does not match the reports of a smooth, problem-free election that have dominated the national media. As part of Obama’s election protection team, I spent 18 hours working in the “boiler room,” the spare office where 96 people ran national election day operations. Obama’s election protection efforts, organized by Bob Bauer, were more generously funded, more precisely planned, and better organized than any in recent memory. Over the course of the day, thousands of lawyers, field staff, and volunteers reported the problems they were seeing in polling places across the country. A sophisticated computer program allowed the lawyers and staffers in the boiler room to review these reports in real time.

[…list of problems elided…]

I draw three lessons from the time I spent watching the invisible election unfold, all of which point to the need to make the invisible election visible to the public, to policymakers, and to election administrators themselves.

First, it is essential that the public see the invisible election. We are never going to get traction on reforming our election system until we have a means of making these problems visible to voters. Virtually every media outlet has reported that the election ran smoothly.

First, I’m a huge fan of transparency. I’m not going to advocate sweeping anything under the rug. But I do question if we really need to draw attention to the problems with voting systems before we have consensus on what to do about them?

See, a working democracy is a tremendously valuable asset. It takes years to start up, and (when working) gives us a way to transition between legitimate governments. The thousand years of European wars of succession didn’t allow for much liberty or wealth creation. Democracy has huge value, and it’s under threat. In 2000, we had a real risk of a crisis. If Al Gore had contested the 5-4 vote in Washington, we had no real way to address it and choose a legitimate next leader. Gore understood this, which is why he was clear that we all had to respect the decision, “for the strength of our democracy.” [link to no longer works] Despite the damage of the Bush years, it was the right call. Because a working democracy is a fragile thing. Trust that the election machinery has gotten the right result and will get the right result next time is an absolutely vital part of the legitimacy of government. Risking it should not be undertaken lightly.

I’ve been at occasional meetings between voting officials and computer scientists for about eight years now. There’s a tremendous gap. The two groups don’t understand each other well, although folks like Avi Rubin are working really hard to bridge that gap. Until there’s a rough political and technological consensus that’s inline with the ‘Help America Vote act’ or its replacement, we should be cautious about undercutting the system we have now.

I also wanted to juxtapose a little with Ryan Singel’s story, “Chertoff: We’re Closing that Boarding-Pass Loophole.” There are now scanners which read a bar code off your boarding pass to make sure you haven’t altered it, and the TSA folks can match your ID to the boarding pass. This was known for years, but driven heavily by Chris Soghoin’s make your own boarding pass toy.

Between the airline software, the scanners and the training, we’ve probably spent tens of millions of dollars to fix the loophole. (Oddly, I haven’t been able to find a statement of the costs.) But the truth is, it’s a silly thing to fix. Good fake ID is easy to get, and will remain easy to get unless we choose a different balance between terrorism prevention, immigration and kids drinking.

Chris has some other entertaining discoveries, which I’m hoping he keeps to himself. I think they’re worth not fixing. That is, the cost of the fix is too high. There are better things to spend money on.

The next few years are going to be rough for the United States. The costs of the Iraq war, our broken health care system, the financial melt-down, the bursting of the housing bubble, infrastructure that’s starting to fail, and global climate change are all going to be competing for a slice of budgets while revenues are falling.

We need to ask ourselves which problems we need to fix, and what the costs of fixing it are really going to be. Not every problem needs a fix, and not every problem that needs fixing needs fixing now.

2 comments on "The Costs of Fixing Problems"

  • David Brodbeck says:

    Hmm. To play devil’s advocate: Maybe it depends on your definition of “working democracy.” Is a democracy where people believe their vote counts, but it really doesn’t, truly a working democracy? Or is it just the illusion of a working democracy? Does the Wizard of Oz exist if we refrain from looking behind the curtain?

  • David Brodbeck says:

    On a less philosophical note: In a democracy, the problems with government that get fixed are the ones the public is aware of. Politicians are unlikely to fix problems with the voting system unless they perceive that their constituents are clamoring for it. If we refrain from drawing attention to this problem until it’s solved, it’ll never *be* solved.

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