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Divided Civil Rights Panel Criticizes Florida Election
By Katharine Q. Seelye
WASHINGTON, June 4 — A fractured United States Commission on Civil Rights has prepared a sweeping broadside against Florida officials over last year's presidential election, calling them "grossly derelict" and saying their "lack of leadership" led to the disenfranchisement of countless Floridians, a majority of whom were African-American.
But not all members of the commission have been involved in putting together the report, which was to be made public on Friday. The two Republican appointees who serve on the eight-member commission said they had not been consulted and suggested that with the report being obtained early by the news media today, the report itself could well be overshadowed, making it unlikely that there would be a resolution about what happened in Florida.
One of the two Republican appointees, Russell Redenbaugh, said the report's conclusions of discrimination were not supported by the evidence. Mr. Redenbaugh said the early release of the report was intended to further the political agenda of the chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, who supported former Vice President Al Gore.
Mr. Gore officially lost Florida by 537 votes to George W. Bush.
Mr. Redenbaugh said: "There are a number of people who are so displeased with the outcome of the election that they would do almost anything to cast a cloud over the legitimacy of the election and the legitimacy of this administration. Sometimes people who believe that their cause is a correct one lose sight of the procedural violations and believe that the means they pursue are justified by the goodness of the ends they desire."
Ms. Berry declined to comment, saying through a spokesman that she could not discuss the report before its formal release, since all the commissioners had not received a copy. Commissioners were informed late today that they could pick up a copy of the 200-page report tonight.
The commission conducted hearings earlier this year with more than 100 witnesses. The report said it "did not find conclusive evidence that the highest officials of the state conspired to produce the disenfranchisement of voters."
But, according to a draft, the report says that Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, and the secretary of state, Katherine Harris, "chose to simply ignore the mounting evidence" that voters were having serious problems on Election Day, perpetuating "a pattern and practice of injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency" that denied them the right to vote.
"The disenfranchisement of Florida's voters fell most harshly on the shoulders of African-Americans," the report states. "Statewide, based upon county-level statistical estimates, African-American voters were nearly 10 times more likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected."
The commission, which can make recommendations to Congress, has no enforcement authority and little power beyond compelling public testimony. It does not have the power to adjudicate the law or set penalties. The report calls for a broad investigation by the Justice Department into whether state officials violated the National Voting Rights Act.
Abigail Thernstrom, the commission's other Republican appointee, called the release of the report to reporters before consultation with other commissioners "a procedural travesty." Ms. Thernstrom said she could not comment on the substance of the report because she had not seen it.
Asked if she knew what the report's conclusions were, she said, "I knew what the conclusions were before this process started."
"This is scandalous," she added. "Nobody ever asked me what my views were. I have never had any discussion with a single member of the staff about the substance or the conclusions of the report."
Mr. Redenbaugh said that in his view, the chaotic election in Florida was the result of the system's being overwhelmed rather than of deliberate discrimination by Florida officials.
Florida officials were to be given 30 days to review the report, but that has not occurred. Katie Bauer, Governor Bush's communications director, said that the commission had sent "relevant portions" of the report on May 25 and asked for comments by June 6 but that the state never received the full report despite repeated requests.
Ms. Bauer said she could not comment on the conclusions since she had not seen them. But she noted that the governor's office had responded earlier to conclusions in a preliminary report, noting, "They were unable to find any evidence of intentional discrimination in the conduct of the November election."
Since then, she said, "the governor has signed one of the most progressive election-reform bills in the nation."
©2001 The New York Times
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