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    A Times Editorial

    Election report merits a response

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 10, 2001

    The credibility of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is compromised when its chairman and other members become actively involved in partisan politics. Still, much of the substance of the commission's report on Florida voting irregularities in last November's presidential election has merit. Some state Republican officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush, chose to dismiss the report out of hand because commission chairwoman Mary Frances Berry and some other members supported Democrat Al Gore's presidential campaign. That's not good enough. The report's specific findings and recommendations deserve a detailed response from the governor, Secretary of State Katherine Harris and other relevant state officials.

    In some respects, Bush and Harris should embrace the commission's findings. For example, the report found no "conclusive evidence that the highest officials of the state conspired to produce the disenfranchisement of voters." After all the wild rumors that agents of the state purposely blocked African-Americans and other predominantly Democratic groups from voting, this conclusion from a panel not sympathetic to Florida's top GOP officeholders is worth noting.

    However, the report also details significant flaws in the Florida vote that should be familiar to anyone who has paid attention since November. It reinforces the evidence that thousands of Floridians were denied their right to vote as a result of outdated equipment, inaccurate voter lists, inadequate access and other flaws. The report also documents the extent to which poor and minority voters were disproportionately disenfranchised.

    The Legislature and county election officials already have taken important steps to correct many of the flaws revealed last November, but other problems still have not been addressed. For example, Harris' office has been slow to restore the integrity of the state voter rolls; in November, a botched job of purging the rolls resulted in thousands of eligible voters being turned away -- while thousands of ineligible felons were allowed to cast ballots.

    Finally, no reforms will fully restore the public's confidence in Florida's electoral system as long as partisan officials are in charge of the process. Bush, Harris and state House Majority Leader Mike Fasano are among the Republican officials who have fairly accused the Commission on Civil Rights of partisan bias. However, those GOP officials don't acknowledge their own obvious partisan biases.

    Our elections should be overseen by non-partisan officials who are free from even the appearance of conflict. The impropriety of Harris' dual role as the state's top election official and co-chair of President Bush's Florida campaign was blatant. And while our region is fortunate to be represented by several county election supervisors with track records of competence and integrity, they will never be fully above reproach as long as they are chosen through partisan elections.

    Harris and others have a point. Critiques of our elections should be free of partisan taint. But so should the elections themselves.

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