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Commission to seek Justice Dept.'s help in Florida voting matter


South Florida Sun-Sentinel


WASHINGTON - (KRT) - The chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said Thursday she intends to send a letter asking the Justice Department to look into whether the state of Florida broke the law in the way it put together the controversial, and now discarded, potential felon voter list.

Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry said during a hearing that the creation of the list and the subsequent actions of some elections supervisors may have violated parts of the Voting Rights Act. But Berry, an appointee of President Clinton, was not optimistic that President Bush's Justice Department would take any action.

"I don't have any great expectation that the Justice Department will go out and do anything about this," she said.

The main allegation is that the Florida Division of Elections knew or should have known that law enforcement data it was using to create the potential felon voter list was flawed and therefore would yield flawed results. Sam Heyward, a Tallahassee, Fla., man, testified Thursday that he was on the list despite having his 25-year-old felony conviction expunged.

The hearing Thursday was reminiscent of others that took place after the disastrous 2000 Florida election. Except, this time, the complaints about faulty voting machines, potential voter intimidation and people being wrongly prohibited from voting are coming almost four months before the presidential election.

Commission member Christopher Edley said the reason he's so disturbed by the situation in Florida is that, even after the 2000 debacle, state officials decided to use data for the felon purge list that they knew had errors. They compounded the problem by sending letters to people on the list, he said - a move that might discourage people from voting.

"To me, that at least walks right up to the edge of a degree of willfulness, to a degree of indifference to the civil rights of the people of Florida, that at least to me, warrants an investigation," Edley said.

And now that the list has been set aside because of the flaws, the state has said county election supervisors are responsible for deleting felons from their rolls. That, some critics argued, could violate the Supreme Court ruling in Bush v. Gore that said election procedures have to be uniform across the state.

In a letter to the commission, Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood declined to testify at Thursday's hearing. Afterward, a spokeswoman called "ridiculous" the allegations of violations of the Voting Rights Act.

"Secretary Hood was disappointed and outraged at the partisan tone of the hearing," said Jenny Nash, a Hood spokeswoman.

The Republican members of the commission were not present Thursday.

The executive director of one civil rights group who testified at the hearing said her group and others have sent letters to Hood challenging the purge list and other issues, including the potential exclusion of 1,249 people convicted of crimes in other states where former felons automatically have their voting rights restored. The groups might sue the state if they do not feel elections procedures are being followed, said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

"They're as close to intent to sue letters as they can be," Arnwine said.

And in another potential challenge to Florida's election procedures, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, told the commission Thursday that he is considering asking the Justice Department to conduct an independent audit of the electronic voting machines purchased since 2000 by Broward and 14 other counties in the state.

A recent South Florida Sun-Sentinel analysis of the performance of the new machines in the March 9 primary showed that votes were not recorded for one out of 100 voters. That's eight times the rate of optical scanners used in most of the rest of the state. U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida and others are attempting to get the machines equipped to issue paper receipts as proof that a ballot was counted properly.

"There's just too many questions about those machines," Nelson said.


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