WASHINGTON — The Justice Department should investigate the possibility that minorities were intentionally denied voting rights in last year’s elections in Florida, the chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights says.
Mary Frances Berry said Tuesday that she plans to request a meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft and will recommend to the commission Friday that the Justice Department be asked to look into problems outlined in a commission report.
According to the report thousands of Floridians were deprived of their votes by outdated equipment, improper purging of voter rolls, language barriers and inadequate access to voting booths.
Black voters were disenfranchised by a disproportionate margin, said the report, which has yet to be approved by the full commission. That vote is scheduled for Friday.
“We are asking the Justice Department and Mr. Ashcroft to look at the facts in our report and look at the remedy he should pursue,” Berry said in an interview. “He should determine whether there was intentional discrimination.”
Justice Department spokesman Dan Nelson said he could not comment on the commission’s report because he hadn’t seen it yet.
“What happened in Florida is that there was bipartisan disenfranchisement – Democrats who were county supervisors did not do what they were supposed to do, and neither did the governor nor the secretary of state,” Berry said.
The report said the state’s highest officials, singling out Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris, were “grossly derelict in fulfilling their responsibilities and unwilling to accept accountability.”
Charles Canady, general counsel for the governor, responded in a letter Tuesday that the report was biased and rife with errors.
“The report grossly mischaracterizes the role of the governor and other state-level officials in overseeing the administration of elections in Florida,” Canady said. “Although Governor Bush has taken a leadership role in reforming our state’s election system, he clearly was not responsible for carrying out or overseeing the preparations for the November
Bush said Tuesday he had not seen the report but the fact that it was leaked to the news media “points to the clear fact that this is a partisan group.”
“They have admitted that there was no systematic effort to discriminate,” the governor said, adding that Florida has responded to the election problems by creating a model system backed by a lot of money. “So I’m moving on,” he said.
The eight-member commission currently has four Democrats, three independents and a Republican.
Fifty-four percent of votes rejected during the Florida election were cast by black voters, according to the report. Blacks accounted for 11 percent of voters statewide.
“The disenfranchisement was not isolated or episodic,” said the report, the product of a six-month investigation. The commission held three days of hearings, interviewed 100 witnesses and reviewed 118,000 documents.
The commission is charged with investigating possible violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and other civil rights protections.
Florida officials and two members of the commission criticized the way the report was released. It was made available to three newspapers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.
The new Florida law requires that all counties have modern optical scan voting machines and stop using the punchcard machines that were the source of much controversy in the Florida vote recount. It also allows for provisional ballots for people who are not on voter lists but say they are eligible to vote. Election officials would later determine if the ballots were valid.
Commissioner Russell Redenbaugh, an independent appointed by Republicans, was sharply critical of the report.
“Without any doubt, there’s political motivation in this process,” Redenbaugh said Tuesday. “The way this has been handled and released reflects poorly on the commission and diminishes the impact it will have.
“President Bush needs to act to produce new leadership on the Civil Rights Commission.”