Politics isn’t Good at Details

by on September 28, 2006 · 0 comments

As I write this, Ed Felten is testifying before the House Administration Committee on e-voting. He recommends better physical security features, a voter-verified paper audit trail, and greater involvement of computer security experts. These are all good recommendations. One recommendation he doesn’t make, unfortunately, is that we consider scrapping e-voting altogether.

If there’s one message that comes through most clearly in his testimony, it’s “get the details right.” The word “detail” appears on every single page of the written testimony, and in five distinct cases he stresses the importance of paying attention to the implementation details of the security measures he recommends. He stresses that security measures that sound good in the abstract will be useless or worse if they’re implemented poorly.

I think he’s right, but here’s the problem: I don’t see any reason to think that the political process will ever be able to get the details right. Politics proceeds by 30-second soundbites. Congress-critters are too busy to delve deeply into the minutia of voting machine design. And, frankly, the people who tend to volunteer to be poll workers are not, on average, very smart.

If you’ve got a policy proposal that depends on the political process getting a lot of complex technical details right, you should probably find a better proposal. Our political institutions should be as fault-tolerant as possible, so that even if a lot of people screw up, the system will still work.

It seems pretty clear to me that e-voting is less fault-tolerant than paper voting. It’s more complicated, which means that there are more places for failure to occur. And it’s opaque to non-computer experts, which means that we’re relying on a much smaller cadre of people to keep the election system honest. Last month, e-voting expert Avi Rubin wrote:

What is really needed is a resource such as a pool of technical people who can quickly descend upon any location, and who have the expertise to do computer forensics, as well as an understanding of elections and election law. Unfortunately such people are (to quote Fred Brooks) as rare as hen’s teeth. If anybody has any ideas of what can be done to respond to this and other such requests, please post them in the comments below. My graduate students are all working at full capacity and cannot drop everything to help with these events, and in general, it seems that finding technical help, especially in remote locations such as Memphis, is virtually impossible on short notice. This is a real problem.

If we could clone a thousand copies of Avi Rubin and Ed Felten, station them in every metropolitan area in the country, and give them dictatorial control over the design of local voting procedures and procurement, I would be comfortable with e-voting. But in the real world, in which there’s only one Ed Felten and one Avi Rubin–and in which it’s a political struggle to even get decision makers to pay attention to what they say–a voting process that requires getting a lot of technical details right strikes me as a disaster in the making.

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