Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, July 21, 2004 7:23 am

Bev Harris, “Black Box Voting” and the public trashing of reputations

Filed under: Black-box voting — Lex @ 7:23 am

So, I’m back from the wilds of South Carolina, and I’m prepared to have my say on the whole Bev Harris/”Black Box Voting” deal.

And my say is this: First, every American who values his right to have his vote counted owes Bev an enormous debt. Many, many people helped make the book “Black Box Voting” a reality and, more importantly, worked very hard to get the issue out in front of the public so that even the laziest media outlet could ignore it no longer. But if Bev hadn’t stumbled onto this story, and realized that it was a story that needed to be told, America might be at a very different and much more dangerous pass today.

To repeat my full disclosure: David Allen, a longtime friend of mine and the owner of Plan 9 Publishing, the book’s initial publisher, hired me to edit the book on a freelance basis. I took on this project with the prior knowledge and permission of the editor of my paper, with the understanding that doing so would bar me from involvement in any N&R coverage of the issue.

I took the assignment for several reasons. Although I’d been a newspaper editor for years, editing everything from breaking news to in-depth projects, I’d never edited a book and was curious to try. David was a friend and his enthusiasm for the project was infectious. Once David explained the book’s thesis to me, I knew enough about computers and their vulnerabilities to grasp at once the potential for enormous problems – put another way, yes, David sold the project to me, but its merits also allowed the project to sell itself.

I thought the likeliest outcome was that the book would sell a few thousand copies. What I hoped was that so many of those copies would find their way into the hands of political leaders and influential journalists/commentators that the issue might catch enough fire that the shortcomings in America’s voting system and the Help America Vote Act could be addressed in time for the 2004 general elections. Put another way, it might become the Velvet Underground of political books. The old saying about the Velvet Underground was that they never sold many records but that everyone who bought one went out and started a band. I hoped “Black Box Voting” might generate voting-rights activists at a rate of at least one or two per copy sold.

And although this wasn’t a big part of my thinking, I thought there was an outside chance that the book might be successfully marketed, via the Internet (particularly some influential Web logs), to a lot of people who wouldn’t ordinarily buy political books and become a bestseller. An outside chance, I emphasize, but a chance.

(I also thought there was at least a 40 percent chance I would never see a dime, although I can’t sit here and tell you now that I knew then what was going to happen.)

If you asked me to prioritize all these reasons, I’m not sure I could except to say that I believed this was a legitimate and crucial news story, one all the more remarkable in that the way Bev was getting help from and double-checking her work with computer experts in online forums made “Black Box Voting” arguably the first open-source investigative journalism project. So it had that little extra coolness factor going for it. In any event, it was an important, unique story, one in which I could play little or no role in my day job or a significant role as a freelancer. I signed on.

My dealings with Bev started well. They didn’t stay that way. The biggest problem was that she blew deadlines like Linda Lovelace, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Originally, the project was supposed to be finished by the end of 2002. Then April 2003. Then September 2003. I didn’t finish editing and proofing until February of this year, by which time the primaries were under way and editing had to be limited pretty much to typos and misspellings. Those who know me professionally know how I feel about deadlines. Moreover, for purely practical reasons I had needed her to adhere to her deadlines: I already had a full-time job, kids and a wife who was working full-time and pursuing an MBA at the time, so I couldn’t just drop everything to edit a chapter immediately whenever Bev felt like dropping one my way.

Meanwhile, Bev’s relationship with David started to deteriorate. In hindsight, this began right around the time Bev and Jim March filed their qui tam suit in California, although I didn’t find out about that until it was unsealed a couple of weeks ago.

About the same time, Bev and David jointly decided to begin posting draft chapters of the book online for free download to deflect criticism that they were “only in this for the money.” I went along with this, even though it probably was going to mean less money for me, because I believed the issue was more important than my making a little money on the side. In fact, because of server problems Bev was encountering with and because I wanted to make sure the book remained available even if voting-machine companies sued Bev, I posted copies for download on this blog, something neither of them asked me to do. (I took them down once enough mirror sites had cropped up that I was confident the book couldn’t be squelched.)

Long story short, earlier this year, Bev accused David of shortchanging her in some way. I don’t know the details, and I don’t want to know the details because I don’t want to have to spend time being deposed. And I don’t know who’s right, but I know this: I’ve known David Allen for more than 10 years, and if he took even one thin dime to which he was not legally and contractually entitled, I’ll be the most surprised person on the face of the planet.

Meanwhile, David directed me to some forum discussions at Democratic Underground, a Web site on which I’d never spent much time because, well, I’m a Republican. And to judge from what I read there, it seems that Bev has been accusing a lot of people who helped her with the book of a lot of things, including filing qui tam lawsuits themselves behind her back (no such suits have surfaced), and that these people are all loudly and publicly denying Bev’s accusations. (Read through this thread at Democratic Underground to see what I’m talking about. And you can see David’s response to Bev’s allegations on this thread.)

So, where are we today? Bev will be employed by a voting-rights nonprofit and stands to make a fair bit of money from her lawsuit. She has been either minimizing or denigrating, in public forums, the work of people she earlier had credited with helping her. Those people include me – depending on which Bev is talking, I either gave her no editing or lousy editing. (David Allen elaborates on this here, among other places.) David, who even Bev has conceded took a chance on the project when no one else would, appears to be headed to court with her. She’s getting pro bono legal representation, but David is having to pay a lawyer, out of consideration for which I haven’t pressed him yet for any payment under our agreement.

That’s pretty much the end of my part of this story. I’ll be happy to answer any questions. And don’t feel sorry for me. I never expected much out of this personally, and that’s what I’ve gotten. I’ve had false and uncomplimentary things written about me by better-known, more credible writers than Bev Harris in my career, and I’m still standing. I’m a big boy, and now that this post is about done I’ve pretty much moved on.

As for the other players, other than David, who’s still hanging in there, I never even met ’em. I hope they’re all as OK as I am.

Bev comes out of this with a decent job, a decent shot at a jackpot (even after lawyer’s fees, her take in the California suit could run into the millions) and success at her primary objective: Most importantly, she has raised public consciousness on an issue crucial to the survival of our democracy.

All it cost her was a couple of years of her life, a few thousand bucks and her soul. Based on my looks at the latter over the past 18 months or so, I’d say she got off cheap. But the cost to the country could be a lot greater: After the way Bev appears to have treated a number of her fellow activists, I bet a bunch of them stay home the next time democracy needs saving.

And if there’s one constant in this nation’s history, it’s that there will always be a next time.


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