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The Hartford Courant

Civil Rights Officials Spar On Election;
Senate Panel Hears Feud On Florida Vote
June 28, 2001

By David Lightman; Washington Bureau Chief

U.S. Civil Rights Commission members staged an ugly, partisan duel Wednesday before the Senate Rules Committee, disagreeing strongly whether black voters were disproportionately disenfranchised in Florida last year.

The eight-member commission, which is controlled by Democrats, this month issued a lengthy majority report detailing how voting problems in the state crucial to President Bush's election "fell most harshly on the shoulders of African Americans," as Chairwoman Mary F. Berry put it.

Although blacks made up 11 percent of all Florida voters in November, they cast 54 percent of the ballots that were ultimately rejected, according to the study.

Wednesday, Republicans fired back -- loudly. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris told the panel in a written statement that Berry and her allies "have crafted a battle plan for politicians interested in wielding the sword of racial division," and said her state was picked for the investigation only because Vice President Al Gore lost.

At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer echoed that view. "There have been many questions raised about whether that report was accurate and about whether the motives for that report were political," he said.

But it was Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican member of the civil rights commission, who led the battle Wednesday, as she sat before Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the rules committee. She icily confronted Berry and challenged detail after detail of the commission's inch-thick report.

The findings, Thernstrom said, relied on "shoddy statistical analysis, coupled with anecdotal and unsubstantiated allegations," and "bear no resemblance whatsoever to actual fact."

She said the report was so poorly done that the commission had "squandered its credibility [with] little more than a partisan assault on the credibility of the American electoral system."

Thernstrom offered her own detailed analysis, aided by John R. Lott Jr., a senior research scholar at Yale Law School, that suggested poverty, rather than race, is a more accurate predictor of voting trouble. She said it was difficult to review the commission's report because its researchers would not provide crucial data used in its conclusions.

That statement enraged Berry. "She was not denied data," she said tautly. "It makes a good story. 'I was denied this. I was denied that.' It is a lie. I'm 63 years old. I'm too old for playing games."

Thernstrom fired back, "I would never publicly call a commissioner a liar, but I have just heard a lie."

The battle between the two, both highly credentialed and respected academics and civil rights activists, got more and more personal during the two-hour hearing.When Berry called American University history Professor Allan Lichtman to join her at the witness table -- after Thernstrom had criticized Lichtman's work on Berry's behalf -- Thernstrom quickly summoned Lott to join her.

And after Thernstrom described her credentials, Berry reminded the committee she had written several books herself.

"This is not a book sale," said Dodd.

The dispute in many ways was a vivid reminder of the partisan bitterness that lingers in Washington six months after the Supreme Court decided the 2000 presidential election. That election hinged on disputed Florida ballots.

Based on hearings and studies, the commission found that blacks were routinely disenfranchised and that it was difficult to find anyone who could pinpoint why -- or take responsibility.

It specifically targeted Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Harris for blame, calling them "derelict" in their duties.

That conclusion infuriated Harris, Thernstrom and others. Thernstrom acknowledged there was bureaucratic bungling.But Republicans were not the only ones who stumbled, she said; in all but one of the 25 counties with voter problems, local Democrats supervised the elections.

There was somewhat more agreement, though not much, on how to fix all this.

Berry seemed sympathetic to Dodd's remedy, seeing the current problems as akin to those that led to landmark civil rights laws of the 1950s and 1960s. "The very least we ought to do in this Congress is ensure that the voting booth receives the same status in our national law as the restroom and the restaurant; that it be a place where equal access for all is guaranteed," Dodd said.

Thernstrom urged lawmakers to be careful. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which removed most barriers to poll access, was passed during what amounted to a national emergency -- a time when literacy tests, poll taxes and other techniques were used to deny blacks the right to vote.

"There is no such national emergency now," Thernstrom said.

© 2001 The Hartford Courant



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