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Rights Leaders Add to Charges of Vote Fraud in Florida


National civil rights leaders Wednesday stepped up their allegations of voting irregularities in Florida, accusing election officials in Miami-Dade County and elsewhere of systematically interfering with minority voters' access to the polls.

The fresh round of complaints, based on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, at once invoked the tortured history of Southern politics while threatening to add yet another layer of contentiousness to an election that seems to grow more bitter as it ages.

Speaking in Baltimore, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume announced that a federal lawsuit would be filed in Florida seeking an investigation into how this year's presidential election was conducted there. The lawsuit also would seek court protections for minority voters in future elections.

Most of the complaints focus on Miami-Dade County, where about 1 in 5 of the estimated 2.2 million residents are black and more than half are of Cuban or other Latino heritage. But the allegations of irregularities spread far and wide.

"We want a court order to make Florida assure the right of every qualified citizen to cast a ballot and to have it counted," Mfume said at a news conference at the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People's headquarters. A similar lawsuit was filed in Miami on Monday by the Rev. Al Sharpton's New York-based National Action Network, asking a federal judge to deny George W. Bush Florida's 25 electoral votes until recounts are held in Miami-Dade and other unspecified counties.

The lawsuit alleges that "substantial fraud and irregularities" make it impossible to determine a winner and also led to "unprecedented disenfranchisement of the voters of color." The lawsuit asks a federal judge to order a new statewide election if he finds it necessary.

"This is really the only standing African Americans have in the legal process, because we're not part of any of the partisan claims" being fought in the Florida and U.S. Supreme Courts, Sharpton said Wednesday in an interview.

Officials for the Florida and Miami-Dade election offices could not be reached for comment. Donna Blanton, an attorney for the Florida secretary of state's office, also declined comment.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson added his voice Wednesday to calls for a Justice Department investigation, arguing at a New York rally that thousands of Florida's minority voters had been disenfranchised.

"What you will see is a pattern of targeted racial profiling," Jackson said, according to Associated Press. "In a democracy, you can afford to lose an election, but you cannot afford to lose your franchise."

The complaints over the conduct of the election are grounded in the 1965 rights act, which emerged during the civil rights movement to dismantle state voting requirements, such as literacy tests, that historically barred many Southern blacks from voting.

The NAACP and Sharpton contend that African Americans, Latinos and other minorities in Florida confronted a wide range of impediments as they arrived to cast ballots Nov. 7. Many of the complaints were aired during a Nov. 11 public hearing conducted by the NAACP in Miami.

In some places, registered voters arrived at polls only to be told they were not registered. Others were told they couldn't vote because they had been mailed absentee ballots--ballots the voters complained they had not sought. In at least one case, voters found their traditional polling site--an elementary school--had been razed and complained that they had not been given an alternative.

NAACP officials have filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department based on the results of the Miami hearing. Justice Department officials earlier said they were reviewing the complaint to determine whether they would mount their own investigation.

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