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Panel probes Bush's inaction

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wants to know why he didn't look into minority voters' complaints about the November election.


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- While stories of voting problems and possible civil rights violations were pouring in after the November election, Gov. Jeb Bush was tending to routine state business and staying largely out of public view.

Bush, who had distanced himself from the presidential election controversy in Florida because his brother was the Republican candidate, never ordered a formal investigation into the complaints.

Now, his failure to act has come under the scrutiny of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which opened hearings in the state capital Thursday to investigate allegations that minority voters were intimidated, turned away from the polls, wrongly listed as convicted felons on voter lists and forced to use outdated equipment at polling places.

Overall, Thursday's hearing put Bush in a new and uncomfortable spotlight.

The governor had scored public relations points in November by quickly recusing himself from a state board that would certify election results after a close contest between his brother George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore. Shortly after the election was resolved, Bush appointed a 21-member bipartisan task force, another move that got good press.

But Thursday, Bush was being criticized for not moving to investigate the complaints of minority voters.

"There was silence," said state Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who has opposed Bush's efforts to end affirmative action programs and motivated thousands of people to march on the Capitol. "The governor had full powers in being able to deal with this issue and opted not to do so."

Bush was issued a subpoena to testify and was questioned by commission chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, who reminded him that Florida's Constitution says the governor "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed."

"What did you do to ensure that election laws were faithfully executed?" Berry asked.

Bush explained that Florida's unique system of governance -- a governor and six independently elected state Cabinet officers -- puts state elections under the control of Florida's secretary of state. In addition, the election system is highly decentralized because Florida has supervisors of elections in all 67 counties.

"The duties to carry out the election itself are not the responsibility of the governor," Bush testified.

However, Berry told Bush that a section of state law allows the governor to appoint "special officers" to investigate alleged violations of election laws.

"You are empowered to appoint special officers to investigate," Berry said. "Have you appointed any?"

No, Bush said. But he had been briefed by the state division of elections and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about concerns that convicted felons had been allowed to vote and people who were not felons were kept from voting.

He also received a summary of a report by the Florida Highway Patrol about allegations of troopers intimidating voters at polling places.

Bush said he was confident that the "proper authorities," such as the Florida attorney general's office, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, would look into the civil rights allegations.

"My responsibility was to look into the future and see what flaws in the election system could be rectified by statute," said Bush, who whose task force on election procedures, standards and technology is looking at a standardized statewide voter system and other reforms.

But that task force is not investigating minority complaints.

On Thursday, several speakers called to testify tried to convey their fears and frustrations some two months after Election Day.

A Tallahassee pastor, Willie D. Whiting Jr., 50, said when he arrived at his polling place with his family, he was told that he was listed as a convicted felon on the voter list.

"You have been purged from our system and you've lost all your civil rights," Whiting said he was told.

After further research, Whiting said there had been mistake. A Willie J. Whiting, with a birthday two days after his, was the convicted felon. He was allowed to vote, but he will not forget the fears that filled his mind.

"I was slingshotted into slavery, that's how I felt," Whiting said. "I thought of all the things that had happened to African-Americans that I knew about. I thought of all the possibilities of what could have happened had I been stopped by the wrong police officer."

Roberta Tucker, 49, who works at the state Labor Department, said she became intimidated and suspicious when she was stopped at a roadblock about two miles from her polling place by five white highway patrol troopers who asked to see her driver's license.

She had never seen a checkpoint before on the road, which is not heavily traveled. Patrol officials later said the checkpoint was not intended to keep anyone away from the polls.

There also was testimony from a Florida A&M University student government leader who said FAMU students had trouble getting registered and receiving their registration cards and were not notified in changes in polling places. Students staged a sit-in at in the Capitol after the November election to express their dissatisfaction.

Jim Smith, a former attorney general and secretary of state, who is a co-chairman Bush's elections task force, said Florida has never paid as much attention as it should to election issues.

As secretary of state, he tried to get the Legislature to approve and pay for reforms, with no luck. "I was very disappointed that while we had great lip service, we didn't get much action."

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights plans to have another hearing in Miami before March and issue interim reports about its work. It does not have prosecutorial powers but will make recommendations to federal officials.

The commission is described as a bipartisan fact-finding agency whose members are appointed by the president and Congress, but several members have close ties to President Clinton and have donated money to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and the Democratic National Committee.

Abigail Thernstrom, the newest member of the commission, who is a Republican, was often at odds with chairwoman Berry on Thursday. She was also complimentary of Jeb Bush, praising him for appointing the elections task force.

The hearing will continue today with scheduled testimony from Secretary of State Katherine Harris, Division of Elections director Clay Roberts, Attorney General Bob Butterworth and Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford.

Crawford was appointed to the state board that certifies election results after Bush recused himself.

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