One of the first things you learn in computer science is the concept of cruft, the remnants of old projects, failed design attempts, temporary fixes, and emergency debugging done ages ago. It all had a reason, a need, an absolute requirement to be written at some point in the past and it has no reason to continue to exist. Cruft is a special type of entropy in human endeavors, the memory of the myriad ephemeral things that were once important to us. The cruft accumulates over time on everything, like moss and bromeliads on everything along the Gulf Coast of Alabama.
Speaking of the Gulf Coast of Alabama, it’s where I am spending this Thanksgiving, living in a camper trailer for weeks at a time, missing my family and helping the Libertarian Party of Alabama gain ballot access. Petitioning is just one of the many hurdles placed on potential political competitors by politicians whose lives are made so much easier by a system with limited challenges to prestigious sinecures. There are also campaign finance limitations, limitation on political speech required to obtain the aforementioned signatures, and deliberately arcane forms that are prone to minor disqualifying errors in individual signatures and require personally identifying information be printed on a sheet of paper distributed to the public.
The whole concept of ballot access restriction through physical signatures is a type of political cruft. It requires physical interaction during a pandemic that, for good or for ill, has made use all more amenable to getting important work done remotely and electronically. A few states like Arizona have made improvements to this archaic system, allowing voters to sign a petition electronically through the same public service portal that handles voter registration and driver services. But most require pen on paper with people placing themselves in physical proximity. And to what effect? Limiting political competition at worst and causing useless busywork and expenditure that serves no public purpose. Petition sheets are thrown in the garbage, hopefully by shredding or burning, but who knows with government, once the state agency determines the magic legal threshold has been reached. After a challenge period, where incumbent parties and their lawyers often create more work through hypertechnical challenges to individual signatures for everything from a city written in the wrong block of a form to a signature that didn’t look enough like the file copy kept in the state’s computers.
Speaking of which, why are we continuing to consider a physical signature a talisman of authenticity and identity in an era of high resolution image capture and autopen services like Bond? There are so many more secure and less privacy invading ways to verify that someone is who they said they are and meant to enter into an agreement. We use online services every day that have implemented these better methods, but government still wants paper and pens and all the legal nostalgia they evoke for a more solemn time.
As a Libertarian, I would prefer that government do less, better. Do less of the things that are better left to individual judgment and choice, like educating your children or running your business or relaxing after work. Do those things that people are widely comfortable with government doing, like courts and roads, better. Make the fewer things more efficient and useful for the people who are forced to pay for those things with tax dollars, not their own choice.
Let’s start by making any ballot access requirements for people to have a political party or candidate on the ballot to represent them be available online with commonly used and accepted technology like two-factor authentication and electronic signatures. If we can DocuSign our mortgage, we can certainly DocuSign a petition to exercise a fundamental right like voting.
In programming, the cruft gets cleaned out by refactoring; going back into the code to review what it’s doing, check to see if it still needs to be done or done that way, and remove or improve. In a camper, the black water tank fills up with the waste we all produce. Everybody poops. Every so often, you have to connect a hose and send that built up waste away before it causes problems. It’s not a fun job and not one that needs to be done every day, but it needs to be done and is critical to a smooth flow of life on the road.
In government, cruft only gets cleaned out when thoughtful citizens like you make it a habit to find the built up cruft and commit some time, money, and energy to repealing or rewriting bad or obsolete laws and check the good laws to see if they could be made better. And when some dedicated thoughtful citizens make the choice to stand up and serve in elected office where they can clean up the cruft at scale.
While I’m living scaled down and focused on a mission, I’m also taking the time to clean out the built up cruft of email accounts, drafts to myself, Google Keep notes, and messages I meant to get to but never did. My personality lets me do a lot of things, but it also makes me lose focus sometimes. That’s why I’m thankful for people like Richard Manzo who keeps things here at the Libertarian Policy Institute on track. We are ramping up and could use your financial support to do even more good work and build out a bigger team. If you want to chat about specifics, please send me a message and we’ll make a time to talk.
On this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the opportunity to work on cleaning out the cruft that has built up in government policy and to do that work with the help and support of great people. Love each other and make the world better.
Nicholas Sarwark is Executive Director of the Libertarian Policy Institute. He served as Chair of the Libertarian National Committee from 2014 to 2020, a period of unprecedented growth. Over the last two decades, he has worked as a systems developer for a major non-profit, tried over 30 cases to a jury as a deputy public defender in Colorado, and managed the oldest independent car dealership and loan company in Phoenix. He founded Wedge Squared Strategies in 2019, a strategy, communications, and campaign consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations maximize their impact on the world. Licensed to practice law in Colorado and New Hampshire, he lives in Manchester, New Hampshire with his wife Valerie and their four children where they volunteer to build a better local community.