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Rights Panel Finds Fla. Vote 'Injustice'

Election: Draft report urges immediate inquiry into the harm done to minorities, especially blacks. State officials 'failed to fulfill' duties, federal commission says.


WASHINGTON — Disenfranchisement of Florida's voters in November "fell most harshly on the shoulders of African Americans" in a presidential election marked by "injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency," according to a draft report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The confidential report by the independent federal agency repeatedly urges the U.S. Justice Department and Florida's attorney general to immediately investigate whether Florida officials violated state or U.S. law by employing policies and practices that unfairly harmed minority voters.

"Despite the closeness of the election, it was widespread voter disenfranchisement, not the dead-heat contest, that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election," according to the 197-page document, key portions of which were obtained by The Times.

"The disenfranchisement was not isolated or episodic," it adds. "State officials failed to fulfill their duties in a manner that would prevent this disenfranchisement."

African American voters were nearly 10 times more likely than white voters to have had their ballots rejected in Florida, the report states. Of the 100 precincts in the state with the highest number of disqualified ballots, 83 are majority black. Overall, 54% of the ballots disqualified were cast by black voters, the report says.

The draft report says investigators found no "conclusive evidence" that state officials conspired to disenfranchise blacks or anyone else in Florida. Nor will it affect President Bush's 537-vote statewide margin of victory over Al Gore, which gave him the White House.

But the panel sharply criticizes the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Secretary of State Katherine Harris and other Florida officials for neglecting widespread weaknesses in the voting system and failing to prepare for increased voter turnout. In testimony before the commission, Bush and Harris argued that their powers were limited under the state's constitution and denied any wrongdoing.

The advisory commission has no power to enforce its findings, which the panel will consider at a meeting Friday. But ever since Congress created the panel as an independent agency in 1957, its reports on major racial conflicts and controversies have helped mold public opinion and guide government action.

Both the Justice Department and the state attorney general's office launched investigations into possible civil rights violations after the election. No results have been announced and it wasn't immediately clear if the commission's recommendations would lead to wider inquiries. The commission consists of four Democrats, three independents and one Republican.

Even unintentional acts that have a disparate effect on minority voters are illegal under a 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The draft report focuses heavily on the now-familiar litany of problems that bedeviled Florida's voters: error-prone punch-card ballots, confusing ballot designs, unreliable voting machines, inadequate resources and a botched effort to cut felons from voter rolls that mistakenly disenfranchised legitimate voters.

According to the report, the data on the computerized felon list had "at least a 14.1% error rate." The state's use of the list, combined with a state law that forced voters to get themselves off the list, "resulted in denying countless African Americans the right to vote."

Florida's Legislature approved sweeping election reforms in early May in an effort to correct many of those problems, so the effect of the commission report and its recommendations may be limited.

The Legislature voted to eliminate punch-cards, paper ballots, mechanical lever machines and counting systems that contributed to high error rates, for example. They also agreed to allow "provisional ballots" for voters who are challenged at the polls, and provided money to train poll workers.

The civil rights panel plans to return to Florida next year to monitor the reforms before the state's 2002 gubernatorial elections. "The commission is quite accustomed to legislatures passing laws and then never doing anything," the commission chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, said in a recent interview.

Commission hearings in Tallahassee and Miami earlier this year focused on election irregularities. Panel members quizzed more than 100 witnesses as they sought to determine who made critical decisions and how they affected minority communities. At issue: why 180,000 presidential ballots were disqualified and not counted last fall.

Florida saw a record black turnout last year thanks to registration and get-out-the-vote drives by unions, students and other groups. About 893,000 African Americans went to polls across the state, a 65% increase from 1996.

"If it was a systematic plan" to discourage black voters, "it failed," said Darryl Paulson, political science professor at the University of South Florida.

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