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Panel sees little progress on voting

The Commission on Civil Rights says it found "an array of problems.'' Jeb Bush says they will be fixed.

By BILL ADAIR and LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said Friday that Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature are not doing enough to correct voting problems from last November's election.

The commission urged state officials to take prompt action to address problems such as confusing ballots, poorly trained poll workers, language difficulties and the improper removal of qualified voters from registration lists.

"It doesn't sound like they are dealing with all these issues," said Mary Frances Berry, the commission's chairperson. "They don't seem to be taking this seriously."

The commission, in an interim report on the Florida election, said it has found "an array of problems" that appear to violate federal voting laws.

"It appears at this phase of the investigation that the evidence may ultimately support findings of prohibited discrimination," the commission said in a statement. The panel said it was especially concerned that non-felons were removed from voter rolls and that precincts in poor neighborhoods had old voting equipment and inadequate staffing.

The commission also said that some polling places closed early and that some were moved without notice to voters. It did not indicate any specific locations.

Berry said she was challenging Bush and the Legislature to take action in the next two months to show they were serious about correcting the problems. The commission then plans to hold more hearings in Florida after the Legislature adjourns, to assess the state's response.

In response to the complaints, Bush said Friday he was responding by replacing old voting devices.

"We're going to cure the problem," Bush said. "It's related to standards for machines and ballots and a means of recounting."

He said the Legislature would address the problem this spring.

"It may not stop the civil rights commission from having hearings, but in 2002 we'll be a model for the rest of the nation," Bush said.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Bush noted there was no evidence of any intentional discrimination in the election but said:

"I take seriously the alleged inefficiencies and bureaucratic errors identified in the commission's statement. Many of these matters are addressed in the recommendations of the Select Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology. I am confident that the Legislature will act on the task force's recommendations and that the result will be a world-class election system in Florida."

He said at the conclusion of a Tallahassee news conference that the panel may be playing politics.

"I worry that their motivations may be more than what their duty is -- it may be political," Bush said.

The commission, which can issue subpoenas but has no prosecutorial power, has four Democrats, three independents and one Republican. It often has been criticized for being aligned with Democrats.

Two commissioners dissented Friday -- Russell Redenbaugh, an independent, and Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican.

Thernstrom said it was premature to draw conclusions about the Florida election.

"I do not understand rushing to judgment over a very complicated matter when all the documents have not been reviewed," she said.

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