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Tech Industry

Hail to the 'coder in chief'

Libertarian Party candidate for president Michael Badnarik wears his geek credentials as a badge of honor. But is he a Mac guy, a PC guy--or both? Hey, it's an election year.

The majority of U.S. presidents have been lawyers, with a handful of soldiers and even a tailor and a teacher having been elected to the nation's highest office.

Not one has been a self-identified computer geek, an unfortunate situation that Libertarian Party presidential candidate Michael Badnarik would dearly like to change in the Nov. 2 election.

Badnarik, 49, was born in Hammond, Ind., and now lives in Austin, Texas. Badnarik won the Libertarian nomination in May, after a nail-biting convention that ended with him receiving 54 percent of the vote, beating movie producer Aaron Russo and radio talk host Gary Nolan.

While the laissez-faire activists at the Libertarian Party have managed to land their candidates on the ballot in all 50 states for the last three presidential races, the party remains a nearly insignificant force in national elections. Libertarian Harry Browne won a mere 384,431 votes in 2000. The Reform Party's Pat Buchanan received 448,895. Meanwhile, Ralph Nader, a Green Party candidate at the time, got 2.9 million votes, which some said helped tilt the election in George W. Bush's favor.

This year, the Libertarians hope that their platform of individual rights, peace and liberty will have a similar spoiler effect in states that appear to be evenly divided between Bush and Democrat John Kerry. The Libertarians' commitment to low government spending and opposition to the Iraq war, the argument goes, may help lure Republicans who have grown disenchanted with a president who has ushered in record budget deficits and sent American troops to fight a war under dubious pretenses.

By selecting Badnarik and running mate , a lawyer, Libertarian delegates lived up to their reputation for sometimes-zany antics. Badnarik has refused to file tax returns with the IRS, has said that top IRS officials should receive "indictments for fraud," and has collected numerous tickets for driving without a license because he refuses to be fingerprinted for one. (Badnarik's IRS views quickly vanished from his campaign Web site after he won the nomination; a representative insists the deletion was merely the result of a redesign.) Campagna is a good match: The Iowa resident claims to have a Ph.D. from the American College of Metaphysical Theology, an unaccredited school that charges $249 for its doctoral programs.

CNET recently spoke with Badnarik about his approach to technology policy and what it means to be a geek in politics.

Q: A presidential candidate with a serious technical background is a rarity. Can you describe what you've done?
A: I've written assembly language programs on paper tape, so my technical background goes back to the late '70s. The first computer I worked on was at the Zion nuclear plant, which is at the Illinois and Wisconsin border at Lake Michigan. That computer was a Xerox P250, and it consisted of transistors, resistors and mercury-wetted relays.

(A few years later) I was the senior programmer for a nuclear control room simulator, basically a $6 million computer game. They still had two Xerox P250 computers. I had been hired as, effectively, a Model T mechanic. I was one of the few people who could handle a machine with that level of technology. The plant was in the process of changing the computers and they needed to keep the computers alive while the changeover was successful.

What happened after the changeover?
They had a client-server based system for the telecommunications department, and my job was to teach the telecommunications department how to use it. My company felt they needed a trainer for a short period of time. Rather than hire a professional instructor and then fire them eight months later, they felt they would use me. In my private life, I was an advanced first aid, CPR and scuba instructor. Teaching was something I did as a volunteer for the Red Cross. It was supposed to be a temporary assignment, but I did so well (at) teaching people about the technical aspects of a computer that the company continued to use me as a trainer.

When did you join the Libertarian Party?
I joined the Libertarian Party in 1994, when I discovered the party. However, philosophically, I had been a libertarian for many years before that.

What led you in that direction? Books by authors like Ayn Rand or Robert Heinlein?
I was a Boy Scout for 12 years, and my parents taught me to be responsible for my actions. They invested the basic tenets of libertarian philosophy in me then. Then I took (the Nolan quiz) and decided that I was 100 percent pure libertarian.

Are geeks more libertarian than the general public?

I do not consider "geek" to be a pejorative term, and I'm happy to wear that label.
Absolutely. I think that's true because they know logic better than the non-geeks, and they make decisions intellectually more often than emotionally. I do not consider "geek" to be a pejorative term, and I'm happy to wear that label.

You said you had worked to train people on a client-server system. How long did that training job last?
In an effort to get back to the raw programming world, I accepted a job in Austin, Texas, as a kind of trainer and programmer. Evolutionary Technologies International was the name of the company. They produce a code generator, which is a program that writes other programs. So it was very sophisticated proprietary software. Programmers working for our client companies would come to Austin to go through an intense two-week training period.

What languages did you program in?
Cobol and C.

Did you stay with the code generator project?
In 2001, I had the opportunity to be a Web development trainer working as an independent contractor. That involved writing programs in Java, HTML, JavaScript--and I forget how many other different languages that I became proficient at in four to five weeks. It never actually happened. While I was training for that position, the high-tech industry kind of collapsed, especially in Austin.

And that made you decide to run for president?
Not as a result, but it was certainly during that time. I was unemployed for several months. I was looking for technical jobs when friends of mine recommended that I run for president.

Libertarian Party candidates typically get less than 1 percent of the vote. Are you running because you hope to win, or as a way to draw attention to free-market, limited-government ideas?
I'm running because I can win. The probability may be low, but our political environment this year gives me a much better opportunity to bring the Libertarian Party into the mainstream. A majority of voters in 2000 voted for the lesser of two evils, and I think most of them have been unhappy with the administration over the last four years. Over the last 18 months I've been campaigning, many non-Libertarians have told me they're looking for another option.

If they're looking for another option beyond the two major parties, wouldn't that mean the Green Party?
I wouldn't say I'm necessarily in competition with the Greens. I'm suggesting that the average voter is either looking for a third option or actively trying to avoid the duopoly. This gives me a much greater opportunity to spread our message and acquire disaffected voters from the two major parties. I don't consider the Greens a very big threat, primarily because their greatest asset was Ralph Nader. He's now running as an independent, thereby splitting whatever influence they might have had.

Congress is becoming more and more interested in enacting new laws in areas like spyware, file-sharing networks and voice over Internet Protocol. If you were running things, what would you do?
Basically get Congress out of the Internet completely. The Internet is successful explicitly because it's a free-market-regulated environment. We have freedom of speech and the Internet allows people to express their views quickly and easily. It is a free marketplace of ideas. Web sites spring up by the thousands if not millions on an almost daily basis. The American people have flocked to the Internet in part because it was unregulated. Any attempt by the government to regulate it will destroy or diminish the value of the Internet.

What about people who want regulation or new laws because they'd like to feel safe and comfortable online?
You have a responsibility to protect yourself from any threats that you perceive on the Internet. It is not the government's job to regulate just because you have personal concerns.

That sounds a lot like what the Libertarian Party might say about firearms and the Second Amendment.
As a Libertarian, I apply the same principle to everything. Whenever possible and appropriate, an individual should make all the decisions about his or her life. That is the definition of liberty. Any time we give the government the ability to make our decisions for us, we are giving up our responsibilities and losing our liberty.

What do you think about the controversy over electronic voting machines?
I am opposed to any system that does not leave an audit trail. As a programmer, I am very aware of the many ways that electronic voting machines can be tampered with. Although I would be happy to use some form of electronic tabulation to speed up the results process, in order to maintain credibility, elections must be based on some sort of tangible paper ballot, some kind of audit trail.

Does being a geek or a programmer make you a better politician?
No, but having honesty and integrity does.