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New Focus on Voting Abuses

Ashcroft increases funding and staffing to ensure Americans' election choices 'are not diluted.'


WASHINGTON — Spurred by the Florida election debacle, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft pledged Wednesday to devote more staff and resources to combating voting rights problems "so that Americans' votes are not diluted by vote fraud."

The Justice Department will send more federal monitors to polling places, add eight lawyers to its voting rights staff--an increase of 22%--and create a senior post to oversee the volatile issue, Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft said the expansion was triggered in part by the controversy over the November recount battle in Florida, where many minorities complained that fraud or intimidation were used to deny them access to polling places.

"I can't say that any specific complaints might not have arisen [in Florida] had we done this a couple of years ago, but prospectively we want to do what we can to minimize problems," Ashcroft said. "There is a significant enough level of discontent surrounding access and the integrity of the voting process" to warrant redoubling efforts, he added.

Ex-Rights Official Lee Applauds Move

Although Ashcroft's commitment will be tested by how well the plan is executed, even former Clinton administration officials gave him credit for saying the right things.

"It sounds like he's trying to give voting rights more visibility. . . . Further increases are a step in the right direction," said former Justice Department civil rights chief Bill Lann Lee, who oversaw staffing increases in voting rights during his tenure working for Janet Reno.

The expansion of the voting rights program runs counter to belt-tightening in other parts of the Justice Department. And it signals another effort by Ashcroft to mend fences with minorities who are offended by his views on racial matters.

In the month since he took over the department, Ashcroft has held a tense meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, backed the appointments of three blacks as his top deputies and repeatedly embraced civil rights as a top priority.

The "Civil Rights Initiative" that Ashcroft unveiled Wednesday was his first concrete plan to back up that pledge. A portion of a $2-million increase in civil rights funding will go to pay for the plan, aides said, with more increases expected next year.

The plan, which does not require congressional approval, calls for beefing up both the prevention and prosecution of voting rights abuses. It relies in part on expanded cooperation among federal and local authorities, with the Justice Department acting as a clearinghouse for ideas on voting reforms.

The Justice Department already serves as the government's primary watchdog on voting rights. Since the 1960s, it has routinely sent election day observers to polling places in areas with histories of discrimination and voter-access problems.

In severe cases, the department also sues voting districts to ensure compliance with federal law. Last year it filed lawsuits against a San Gabriel Valley water district and the city of Santa Paula in Ventura County over allegations that their voting practices were biased against Latinos.

NAACP Frustrated by Unresponsiveness

Ashcroft said that when the Justice Department learns of voting complaints, it should be more aggressive in dispatching election monitors to see if abuses are occurring.

But Jean Ross, spokeswoman for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said the group remains frustrated because the department--under both Reno and Ashcroft--has not responded directly to its many complaints about disenfranchised voters in Florida. Ashcroft refused to discuss the status of the department's Florida investigation.

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