Bomb Iraq with Ballots

Tom W. Bell*

originally published as Bomb Iraq! with Ballots, Tech Central Station, October 4, 2002, at § Defense

The United States may or may not have sufficient reason to force a change of regime in Iraq. Opinions vary widely on that issue. The case for invading Iraq would command deeper and wider support, however, if we had good evidence that the Iraqi people want outside help in overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But given his tyrannical grip on power, how can we find out what his victim-citizens want? By bombing Iraq into a democracy.

Imagine a "ballot bomblet"--a small, cheap, battery-powered device that allows one person one vote on one issue. U.S. military would scatter ballots bomblets across Iraq in the same way that they might later scatter explosive bomblets: by airborne express. Far from killing Iraqis, however, ballot bomblets could save them.

Each ballot bomblet would transmit its single "yes" or "no" vote wirelessly to overhead planes or satellites, to secret local receiving stations, or even to other ballot bomblets via a packet-switched, peer-to-peer network. No matter how they get their messages out, ballot bomblets would let the Iraqi people bypass Hussein's censorship and express their opinions directly to the U.S. and the rest of the world. Only by voting from a distance--"televoting"--can those whom Hussein subjects to his rule freely voice their objections.

The exterior of each ballot bomblet would clearly describe, in text and pictures, how to use it and what issue it concerns. It might, for instance, offer a choice between a picture of Hussein and a picture of Hussein in a red circle with a slash across his face. Information delivered via leaflets, radio broadcasts, and word-of-mouth would help to explain the how and why of ballot bomblets, too. Although no doubt at first understandably fearful of the strange, heaven-sent devices, the Iraqi people should come to realize that they have far less to fear from ballot bomblets than from Hussein's thugs.

No ballot bomblets exist, yet. But the U.S. government need only publish appropriate specifications, offer an ample reward for the best design, and let market forces tackle the problem. Entrepreneurs have already announced plans to sell disposable cell phones costing only $10 apiece and as small as three stacked credit cards. Surely a military-industrial complex capable of cruise missiles, flying drones, and smart bombs can build a small, cheap, and effective tele-voting device.

What sort of specs would the ballot bomblet have to meet? It would of course have to protect each televoter's anonymity and hinder tampering by Iraqi political authorities. The ballot bomblet's design might, for instance, allow a voter to finger two buttons hidden under a small, opaque, plastic hood. Pressing one button would record her vote in favor of Saddam's continued rule. Pressing the other one would signal her support for a U.S.-assisted revolution. She would have to choose only one of the two options, of course.

The slight movement required and the hood's protection would ensure that local observers would not know how any ballot bomblet's user had voted. They probably would not even know if she had voted or not. After all, the ballot bomblet's specs should require that it easily fit in a pocket or beneath a loose-fitting garment.

Nor would Iraqi authorities be able to rig the election bombing campaign. Each ballot bomblet would allow only one televote. Cutting the ballot bomb's hood or tearing it open would disable it, while strong encryption would prevent mass-manufactured votes and eavesdropping on a bomblet's signal.

Trying to beat or buy the election would avail Hussein little, since he would not be able to see how even his own son voted. Because the ballot bomblets would register votes only for a short while, moreover, even Hussein's goons would have too little time to gather up and trigger enough ballot bomblets to sway the election.

We should not expect any ballot bombing campaign to work perfectly. The first time, in particular, the U.S. should invite international authorities to double-check its results, insofar as they can, against random polling and opinion-sampling techniques. And, admittedly, the ballot bomblet would probably not prevent some people from voting multiple times. But we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, especially when challenging a state that has become the enemy of its people.

Ballot bombing campaigns will almost certainly happen someday, somewhere. Even if technological tools have not yet quite caught up with the idea, distributed televoting offers too many military and diplomatic advantages to go unused forever. The U.S. thus might as well get a jump on the future by developing ballot bombing capabilities now.

The U.S should make a good faith effort to hear what the Iraqi people have to say about overthrowing Saddam Hussein. At the very least, a ballot bombing campaign would demonstrate the goodwill that U.S. authorities bear toward the Iraqi people. It would probably do a great deal to destabilize Saddam Hussein's regime even before the election's results explode on the world. And if successful, the U.S. might discover how to peacify a country by bombing it into democracy.

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* Tom W. Bell is an associate professor at Chapman University School of Law and an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.

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"Bomb Iraq with Ballots" - - v.2002.10.04