Robert E. Pierre and Peter Slevin
June 5, 2001
Florida's conduct of the 2000 presidential election was marked by "injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency" that unfairly penalized minority voters, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has concluded in a report that criticizes top state officials -- particularly Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris -- for allowing disparate treatment of voters.
Unequal access to modern voting equipment and "overzealous efforts" to purge state voter lists most harshly affected African Americans in the state that decided the November election for President Bush, the commission declared in a 167-page final draft report obtained by The Washington Post. The inquiry found no "conclusive evidence" that officials "conspired" to disenfranchise minority and disabled voters.
Fifty-four percent of votes rejected during the Florida election were cast by black voters, according to the report, scheduled for a commission vote Friday. African Americans accounted for 11 percent of voters statewide.
"The disenfranchisement was not isolated or episodic. State officials failed to fulfill their duties in a manner that would prevent this disenfranchisement," said the report, the product of a six-month investigation. "Despite the closeness of the election, it was widespread voter disenfranchisement and not the dead-heat contest that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election."
The commission -- composed of four Democrats, three independents and one Republican -- is poised to ask the U.S. Department of Justice and the Florida attorney general's office to investigate whether federal or state civil rights laws were violated.
The commission is charged with investigating possible violations -- intentional or unintentional -- of the federal Voting Rights Act and other civil rights protections.
Advisers to Gov. Bush and Harris were angered yesterday by the report's early release. Harris's spokesman, David Host, called the leak "both fraudulent and shameful" because Harris's response is not due until later this week.
"The commission had issued a preliminary report several months ago and was unable to find any evidence of intentional discrimination in the conduct of the November election," said Katie Baur, the governor's communications director. "Since that report, the governor has signed into law one of the most progressive election reform bills in the nation. We will have no further comment until our office receives a copy of the final report."
The Florida attorney general's office is investigating "possible civil rights violations stemming from the election," spokesman Joe Bizzaro said yesterday. "We're going to give due consideration to whatever is requested by the commission."
Florida's election problems have been scrutinized since Election Day. A bipartisan task force appointed by Gov. Bush concluded that the November election was marred by systemic inconsistencies. That report cited unreliable voting machines, improper counting of absentee ballots and inaccurate databases that allowed unregistered voters to vote while preventing legal voters from casting ballots.
A computer analysis by The Post showed that the more black and Democratic a precinct, the more likely it was to suffer high rates of invalidated votes.
No inquiry so far has been as broad as that conducted by the commission -- or as specifically focused on the rights of minorities. The commission held three days of hearings, interviewed 100 witnesses and reviewed 118,000 documents.
Some of the key findings
The report, and its executive summary, were particularly critical of the roles played by Gov. Bush and Harris. Bush was chided for a failure of leadership -- for example, rejecting a $100,000 budget request for voter education. Harris was criticized for claiming that she had only a "ministerial" responsibility for elections.
"While she described her role in the policies and decisions affecting the actual voting as limited, she asserted ultimate authority in determining the outcome of the vote count," the report said.
R. Doug Lewis, director of the Houston-based Election Center, said Harris and Bush had limited control over the 67 county supervisors. The commission showed "a lack of understanding about how the process works," he said.
"In all fairness to Secretary Harris and all other secretaries of state, until state legislatures give them very specific authority for enforcing actions over local authorities, there is no legal basis for them to do it."
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said the report supports the complaints of minority voters.
"The report underscores officially what most of us have known all along," Mfume said. "Not only was there widespread disenfranchisement, there was also a kind of widespread acceptance that the less done about it the better."
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