Can more techies in politics make for better policy? Dozens of scientists, computer scientists and tech entrepreneurs are running for office this year both on the federal and state level. They won’t be immune to the gravitational pull of politics once in office, but many expect that they’ll put more faith in data and the expertise in their personal networks to enact fact-based policies.
“When someone is a software developer, or information architect, or scientist of some sort, my hope is that when they approach a problem, they’ll use the scientific method, and test their hypotheses, and try to approach government on a rational basis,” Ben Kallos, a software developer, lawyer and New York City Councilman told me over the phone.
Democrats are placing high hopes on Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat running for Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She has an undergraduate degree in engineering from Stanford and a masters in technology and policy from MIT. (Among other things, she’s been an entrepreneur, a chemistry teacher, and a leader in the non-profit world.) Army veteran and tech entrepreneur Joseph Kosper is running as a Democrat to represent Texans in the 21st district in Congress. Tech entrepreneur and former Googler Brian McClendon is running as the Democratic candidate for Kansas Secretary of State. And there are dozens more scientists and techies running at the state level.
Not all of these candidates have found success. Brianna Wu, a video games developer, got 24% of the vote in her challenge to Democratic U.S. House incumbent Stephen Lynch in Massachusetts’ 8th District. Tech entrepreneur and lawyer Suneel Gupta also failed in his bid for office in Michigan’s 11th District, garnering 21% of the vote in a four-way field. Brian Forde, a technology entrepreneur, crypto expert and former White House technology advisor for President Obama, ran unsuccessfully for Republican House member Mimi Walters’ seat in Southern California, placing fourth in a field of six.
Like many other first-timers running for office this year, these candidates say that they see their communities headed in the wrong direction, and they couldn’t afford to sit on the sidelines any more — even if it meant leaving their lucrative careers and comfortable lives. And a career in tech no longer seemed to be the most effective way of “changing the world.”
“If we don’t get involved, our fate might be decided for us via economic incentives, and those incentives may not align with what any of us as citizens would like to see,” Jonathan Wallace said in a phone interview.
Wallace, 39, is a software developer who last worked for Stitch Fix in Watkinsville, Georgia, where he lives with wife and three children. A confluence of events that shook up his life last summer — in addition to the 2016 presidential election — sparked his desire to run for the Georgia House of Representative’s 119th District as a Democrat, and the conviction that he could win. “I was the person I was complaining about,” Wallace said about himself prior to the 2016 Presidential election. “I was the person who said: ‘I’m doing good, I’m working on myself, I’m working on my family, and my career,’ and I was having fun.”
But then a close friend in San Francisco was killed in a mugging and his grandmother died within the same month. Meanwhile, he had taken up a leadership position in his church, and a friend called and asked if he knew anyone who wanted to run for office since the Republican Assembly member had announced that he was moving on. Wallace, who was a founding engineer of a YCombinator startup called Doblet, figured that if he could endure the stress of building a new company, he could build a campaign in 60 days to win an election. Wallace won the special election and is up for re-election this year.
For his part, Wallace argues that state legislatures need as many technologists running for office as possible because they need critical masses of people to understand the powerful impact of modern digital technologies on our daily lives — and to enact the appropriate levels of consumer protection laws. Or even just to stop misguided ideas becoming law.
Wallace earlier this year worked to dissuade the Georgia Assembly, and then Governor Nathan Deal, from enacting S.B. 315, a deliberately vaguely-worded proposal that would have criminalized the act of trespassing on a computer or computer network. Critics charged that the proposed legislation would have also legalized “hack backs,” meaning that entities that perceived that they’d been hacked would have been authorized to retaliate. State Senator Bruce Thompson, a Republican, proposed the legislation after state law enforcement authorities found that they did not have the legal tools to prosecute a security researcher for discovering (and responsibly reporting) a vulnerability that enabled would-be intruders to tamper with and download the state’s entire database of 6.7 million registered voters. Microsoft, Google, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several cybersecurity companies said the proposed law was too vague, and would have criminalized white hat hackers, such as the one that discovered and reported the vulnerability. Deal ultimately vetoed the legislation.
“We need more folks, more legislators who are driving policy forward to connect with one another because this is not an experience that’s unique to me,” Wallace said. “So if we connect between different states and share experiences with one another, I think we’d drive better policy outcomes.”
The need is even more severe for states like Georgia’s where being a legislator is a part-time job, he added.
And like other tech candidates, Wallace sees the need for legal code that can keep up with emerging technologies. When he starts talking about privacy and cell phone metadata, he sounds as if he’s worried that we’re already living in the dystopia that’s depicted in the Netflix series Black Mirror.
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