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    Incivility engulfs civil rights panel

    The panel that scolded Florida for its handling of the presidential election is accused of bias by its Republican minority and Florida's secretary of state.

    ©Associated Press

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 28, 2001

    WASHINGTON -- Members of the nation's Civil Rights Commission called each other liars. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris accused the Democratic chairwoman of focusing on her state simply because Al Gore lost.

    Partisan sparring was the rule of the day Wednesday as the Senate Rules and Administration Committee heard testimony on the commission's report regarding Florida's presidential election results.

    In that report, approved by a 6-2 vote, the commission found that black voters' ballots were disproportionately tossed out. The report suggested widespread violations of the Voting Rights Act.

    At Wednesday's hearing, Republican appointee Abigail Thernstrom said the findings were flawed and accused Democratic members of withholding data on the results. Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, appointed by Democrats, denied the charges.

    "It is an absolute falsehood. She was not denied data," Berry said. "It makes a good story. 'I was denied this. I was denied that.' It is a lie. I am 63 years old. I'm too old for playing games."

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

    Thernstrom said the majority's report "positively sets us back in our progress (toward racial harmony). Inflated rhetoric depicting crimes for which there is no evidence undermines public confidence . . . including the alienation of blacks from the process."

    Harris, who was not present but sent a response to the commission's report, accused the panel of "arbitrarily and selectively" focusing on Florida because Gore lost.

    "If the commission had been truly interested in issues of voter disenfranchisement regardless of the closeness or outcome of a particular election, the commission would have launched an investigation in Illinois, which had the most uncounted presidential ballots of any state," Harris said in a statement released Wednesday.

    Harris said her state was singled out "because of the unprecedented close election in Florida, which decided the election against the candidate the chairperson of the commission supported."

    Harris herself is a Republican partisan who worked for George W. Bush's Florida campaign.

    "Instead of helping to create a blueprint for an election system that no American ever again doubts whether his or her vote counts, the majority have crafted a battle plan for politicians interested in wielding the sword of racial division," Harris said.

    At the White House, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer seconded Harris' broad complaint. "There have been many questions raised about whether that report was accurate and about whether the motives for that report were political," Fleischer told reporters. "There are important issues that need to be looked at."

    The commission's six-month investigation of the contested Florida vote found the election was plagued by faulty machinery, problems with access to polling places, faulty purging of voter rolls and a lack of attention by state and county officials to evidence that growing numbers of voters would overwhelm outdated systems.

    The report said the state's highest officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush and Harris, both Republicans, were "grossly derelict in fulfilling their responsibilities and unwilling to accept accountability."

    Both members who voted against the report were appointed by Republicans. They released a dissenting report Wednesday.

    Thernstrom called the commission's report "little more than a partisan assault on the integrity of the electoral system." She said there is no proof race was involved in the decision to toss out scores of ballots.

    "No statistical analysis of the rates of voter spoilage can be precise and certain. Ballots are secret. We cannot be sure of the race of voters whose ballots were rejected," Thernstrom said.

    Lawmakers are considering several election reform measures.

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