Friday, December 03, 2004


Bev Harris vs. Keith Olbermann

Bev Harris of Blackbox Voting is pissed off by some statements made by Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, which were apparently inaccurate. Olbermann has since tried to tidy his allegations up a bit, but the flap is unfortunate since they're both doing valuable work in investigating this election.

On Wednesday Olbermann wrote

I don’t think Bev Harris of Black Box Voting is doing anybody any favors.

I suggested as much tonight on Countdown and there were a lot of understandably surprised emails.

This is the standard allegation against any campaigner who attempts to confront authority (most of whom come from the Left). The person is pictured as "extreme," "choosing the wrong methods" and so forth. Such characterizations are especially common if the investigator is a woman. Here's how Olbermann does it—

What Ms. Harris has also left herself - and by extension anybody who is advocating investigation, or merely covering the story - open to, is the charge of grandstanding, of tin-foil hatting, of being somebody who bursts in to a room and screams at public officials, videotape running all the time, artificially creating news.

Me - I think that can be justified. Guerrilla politics - even guerrilla news - isn’t pretty, but it’s often necessary, as long as it’s news you’re interested in. It’s necessary, as long as you take advantage of the opportunity to disperse what news you’ve gathered, promptly and professionally, especially if that opportunity can serve the public good, and comes with relatively few strings attached (“can we see it first so we know what the hell we’re broadcasting?” - the same thing we ask anybody with news videotape not shot by an NBC or affiliated camera crew, whether they’ve recorded a hurricane or a cat nursing a puppy).

I've never met Harris but have followed her campaign to open up the voting process for almost a year now. My impression is that she is not "nice" but that she is effective. I'll take effective any day.

To Olbermann's credit he recognizes the value of "guerilla news," though you have to wonder why filing Freedom-of-Information requests is such a "guerilla" activity. Checking the trashcans of the Volusia Co. Supervisor of Elections might qualify, but then throwing away documents required by law might qualify as "criminal."

But he makes another very telling remark—

It has been pointed out that Bev Harris was scheduled to be on Countdown back on November 8 but her appearance was cancelled. I haven’t addressed this before, either. But we didn’t cancel on her - we wanted, on that first night raising this touchy subject nobody else had previously covered, to have more mainstream guests. And we wanted her back another night. And since then we’ve wanted her to come back with her video. And she hasn’t. [emphasis added]

First, he did cancel on her. He just said so. In Olbermann's world, canceling with the intent of rescheduling apparently does not count as canceling. But he also gives an interesting insight into how your news is filtered for you—he wanted to have more "mainstream" guests.

Well, I hope they patch it up somehow and that Harris finally appears on his show.

PBS NewsHour

Meanwhile, the PBS NewsHour has apparently been forced to take notice of the voting irregularities. They sidled into the topic by labeling the segment "Election Science." It was all very "mainstream" and "moderate."

Last night Terence Smith interviewed Doug Chapin of on "how the voting process can be improved." is funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, "moderate" to the point of wimpy, and uninterested in anyone's opinion who doesn't have either "credentials" or "prominence." Unlike the show's other segments, which have printed transcripts, this segment has only an audio link.

It has been known to happen that "moderate" organizations such as are set up to prevent progress rather than to promote it. I'm not saying that's the case here; perhaps I'm being "shrill." But I've had Doug Chapin in my sights ever since I read this in Consumer Reports

Mr. Chapin of said he expects that the next step for e-voting is a "more nuanced discussion" of how the technology should perform and what regulations would build trust. He added that e-voting experts are also starting to look at innovations in the machinery, such as touch screens that make a ballot and software programs that allow people to verify their votes.

"We have a sense across the country that the security of e-voting machines is a valid policy concern," he said. "The question is, are paper trails the best solution?"

This is the kind of talk that gives rationality a bad name. It seems so reasonable on the surface—"... what regulations would build trust," "innovations," "we have a sense that ...," "... valid policy concern." But underneath, amidst the nuances, it makes hardly any sense at all.

Look. We know "how the technology should perform." At a minimum it should perform as well as the fundamental technology it is replacing. And that technology is to hand-mark a ballot and to hand-count the ballots. With an army of poll-watchers to prevent the votes from being hauled off to the dump, anybody should be able to have an honest election the old-fashioned way.

But e-voting is much more convenient. Officials no longer need a truck to haul off the votes. They can just be lost in situ.

Be leary of anyone who uses the word "nuanced." It's a red flag. Second and more important, the question is most certainly not, as Mr. Chapin says, whether paper trails are the best solution. The question is "Why was no solution implemented for the 2004 election?" Third, we have had quite enough of "e-voting experts" and do not require "innovations in the machinery," though the e-voting companies must be drooling at the hope of fresh contracts when they hear Mr. Chapin's thoughts on the future of e-voting. Be suspicious.

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