Politics eyes system design

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By John Bartlit

A new idea emerges from the nation’s ugly experience with the clumsy, costly websites to sign up for Obamacare. Critics offer their answer, “The sites should have been developed by experienced professionals in designing interactive operating systems.”
What went wrong and how government butchered the process are fuel for zealous debate. Yet the critics seed a new strain of idea into traditional politics.
I have a special name for technical ideas that are put to work in politics. My term is “politechnical” ideas.
Government has many operating systems to improve. One critical system stands above all others as the binding force of a working democracy: namely, the voting system. “Voting system” here refers to its interface with voters, not broader issues such as new forms of primaries or coalition governments.
The public forum built on talk shows carries on a national debate about voting fraud in distant states. The debate is vociferous, constant, and of talk-show quality, which means sketchy.
Access to voting begins with voter registration, voter ID, and voting times and places. In distant states, these parts of the system are continually being redesigned piecemeal by elected officials and legislators, who have a major interest in this or that party’s odds of winning elections.
Few, if any, of those in command of the work qualify as an experienced professional in the design of operating systems. We have been amply warned against this mistake.
So say well-known talk shows.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, a list of symptoms travels halfway around the world while an idea is pulling its boots on.
The politechnical response to the Obamacare websites sows many ideas that deal with voting concerns.
For example, say we keep the current election rules for who wins an election and who are legal voters. The mutual aims of voting are captured in a few design criteria for improving the system, such as:
• Improve the ease and effectiveness of registering legal voters.
• Improve the ease and effectiveness of detecting and barring illegal voters.
• Improve the ease of voting by legal voters.
• Reduce set-up and operating costs of the system. Points, or weights, can prioritize the criteria.
The right and proper weights, on a basis of 100 points, might be:
• Effective registering of legal voters (25 points)
• Effective detecting and barring of illegal voters (25 points)
• Overall ease of legal voting (30 points)
• Saving system costs (20 points)
Using these, or other, weighted criteria, a contest could be held. A national competition among experienced systems engineers could produce three winning designs of an optimized voting system that meets the set criteria.
Existing voting systems could be compared with one or more designs optimized by professional systems engineers. High-quality voting systems would show their merit against a model system.
Inferior voting systems would show their defects when compared to a model system.
But the road is rutty. This or any other idea that expands the public debate has little chance to be debated.
A proposal from either party brings the standard retorts.
Say a noted Republican proposed to have a professional design team develop a model voting system, or two, using cutting-edge tools. Democratic voices would say, “Republicans think Americans are dumb enough to fall for their trick.”
Expect the familiar blackballs: “Republicans are thick with the corporate rich.” “A shabby scheme to disenfranchise minorities.”
A noted Democrat might propose to have professionals develop a voting system to meet the four criteria. Republican strategists would hit back, “Democrats think Americans are dumb enough to fall for their trick.”
Expect the familiar blackballs: “Democrats are thick with freeloaders.” “A shabby scheme to crowd voting booths with illegals.”
Would a competition among practiced systems engineers be a useful addition to today’s idea exchange? Would commercial system designs dig deeper into voting processes and their design criteria?
Could a politechnical idea gain currency in the public forum? The oldest tool is inquiry.

John Bartlit is a representative of the New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water.