WASHINGTON — The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights approved a report Friday that found black voters’ ballots were disproportionately tossed out in Florida’s presidential elections and suggested widespread violations of the Voting Rights Act.
The commission’s six-month investigation of the contested Florida vote found the election was plagued by faulty machinery, problems with access to polling places, faulty purging of voter rolls and a lack of attention by state and county officials to evidence that growing numbers of voters would overwhelm outdated systems.
The commission adopted the report by a 6-2 vote, with both members appointed by Republicans voting no.
“We will send this report to the attorney general, president and Congress,” said Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry. “We will request a meeting with the attorney general.”
She said she hopes the report, which offered criticism of both Republican state officials and Democratic county officials, will spark a renewed interest in changing election laws and procedures. The commission will make specific recommendations to Congress after its next meeting.
She said that since the disputed elections “one of the most disappointing things to me is that I thought there would be more interest in electoral reform.”
The commission is asking the Justice Department to investigate the problems in Florida, determine whether the disparities were intentional and suggest what remedies might be needed.
The department said it hadn’t received the request for a meeting, but has been investigating complaints about the Florida election for months. The department is still investigating about a dozen of these complaints, but has dealt with the others, said Dan Nelson, a spokesman for the civil rights division.
The two members of the commission appointed by Republicans, Abigail Thernstrom and Russell Redenbaugh, said they didn’t accept the report’s findings and planned to offer a dissenting opinion later.
“The evidence from the hearings does not support the findings of this report,” Redenbaugh said.
Berry said she was pleased with the steps Florida has taken in ordering new modern equipment and setting aside money for voter education and poll worker training. But she said the state has not addressed access problems for the disabled, a lack of bilingual help for voters at the polls and a need for better monitoring of purges of voter rolls to remove felons. The report said Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris ignored warning signs of problems and pleas for help from county officials.
Bush and Harris responded earlier this week that they felt the commission report was the work of a partisan group. The commission has four Democrats, three independents and one Republican. Bush’s office had no immediate response Friday.
The commission is considering what other states it should visit to examine election problems from last year, and plans to revisit Florida to see how changes are progressing.
“We plan to stick with this through the 2002 elections,” she said, noting that she’s heard from members of Congress including Chris Dodd, the new chairman of the Senate Rules Committee who plans to push for federal action on election law changes.
The commission heard from Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, who analyzed the Florida vote data for the commission — especially in three counties with some of the highest rates of discounted ballots — Duval County (Jacksonville), Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County.
Lichtman said there was a “tremendous disparity” between the rates at which black and nonblack votes were not counted.
“I was quite amazed by what I found,” said Lichtman. For example, he said, in Duval County about one in five ballots cast by blacks was not counted.
The rate of black votes rejected was sometimes as much as three times or more the rate of nonblack votes rejected.
On The Net: Civil Rights Commission — http://www.usccr.gov