Last week (or so), I proposed a National Electoral Institute, or NEI. The short version of that proposal: The NEI is essentially a National Transportation Safety Board for elections. I promised to discuss the composition of such an organization as well as barriers to its creation and downsides, so here ’tis. This post is perhaps shorter than it could be, but I figured I better get off my butt and finish up before the election….

Staffing and Composition

So who would I hire to my hypothetical NEI? In addition to the usual lawyers, I’d consider:

  • Human Factors Engineers. Interface design? Yep, there’s science on it, and quite a bit. Anyone who has designed a user interface (me, for instance) knows the difference between something done hastily and something done with careful attention to detail. It is NOT easy. Cognitive scientists and human factors engineers cooperate to optimally design airplane cockpits and car dashboards, for instance. They can optimally design ballots to be readable to people with vision issues, such as the increasing number of elderly in the country, to avoid confusion, and otherwise improve the ballots to avoid the dreaded Butterfly Ballot Fiasco, or the numerous other fiascos we never heard about but doubtless exist out there.
  • Computer Scientists. One of the big holes in the system is computerized voting. There are all sorts of good reasons for computerized voting—cost, rapid counting, etc.—but getting the security right is far from trivial. Specialists in networking, formal methods and security would all play an important part. For a good example, read about the use of invisible ink on optical scan and voter-based fraud detection here.
  • Mathematicians and statisticians can help design innovative fraud detection schemes. For instance, the invisible ink fraud detection scheme I linked to previous is designed to preserve secret balloting while allowing a voter to check his or her own ballot. By having Joe the Voter (maybe even Joe the Plumber!) check his own ballot the potential for fraud through altering votes is dramatically reduced. Now it turns out that the vast majority of people won’t check, or wouldn’t notice even if they did check, but a clever statistician has shown that only about 1% of people need to check before widespread fraud will be noticed with very high probability. That’s the sort of thing that statisticians think about but most lawyers simply wouldn’t.
  • Political scientists with expertise in polling, geographical statistics, districting and voting rules would also be very helpful.
  • Oversight It’s really, really important to have the oversight of something like this be insulated from the political process or we’ll just be back to Gonzo land again soon enough. Thus it would make sense to have an oversight board with partisan representation, but the composition of the board needs to be people who are insulated. We can take a page from Iowa, where Congressional redistricting is done by a board of retired judges, not the state legislature.

Many of these people are already working on these problems out in academia or industry, e.g., Michael Herron at Dartmouth or Ed Felten at CMU, and that’s good. However, having a group that has institutional memory and, more importantly, a pot of hard money to give to researchers and to pay for “tiger teams” to handle problems when things go really wrong, would be very useful.


Well one of the big barriers to an adoption of this sort of thing is, of course, the Rovian political operator types (of all parties), who have a big incentive in having the system be manipulable. They’re not going to like having oversight and standards. And anyone proposing such a system should be prepared for a big fight from them. But I say screw them as they are surely screwing us.

However, there is a real risk of such an organization becoming a stultified bureaucracy, which is why limiting its enforcement powers would probably be wise (the “who guards the guardians?” question), and this factors into one of the giant barriers in the way… the US Constitution, which expressly leaves running elections up to the states. Massive federalization would require a constitutional amendment, which probably falls in the “ain’t gonna happen” column and I’m not sure I think it should happen. However, I suspect that many states would be very happy indeed simply not to have to mess with things if there was a good, low cost set of options available to them. If there were a list of approved systems certified by my hypothetical NEI, many states might well adopt. Even more, if the Federal government were to fund use of such voting systems via grants, this would shift quite quickly.