The panel voted unanimously Friday to convene hearings in Florida - and possibly other states - on whether voters' rights were violated, though the hearings will come too late to affect the presidential race.
The decision came after the group's general counsel, Edward Hailes, told the seven commissioners about a variety of complaints from Florida voters, including allegations that blacks were turned away from the polls and that voting machinery used in minority areas was old, outmoded and defective as compared with equipment used elsewhere.
"There can be no faith in the democratic process if there is not some reasonable sense of fairness and equity in the election process," said Commissioner Russell G. Redenbaugh.
The number of hearings that will take place, and a timetable, have yet to be determined, but they must begin sometime after Congress meets to count votes from the Electoral College on Jan. 6.
Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry must also determine whether there is a need for hearings in other states, based on a staff report outlining voters' complaints from around the country.
"Although we can have no impact on any particular outcome of the election, we can have a tremendous impact on the process in the future," Redenbaugh said Friday.
The commission is an independent, bipartisan fact-finding agency. Established under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, it investigates complaints of voters alleging they are being deprived of their rights because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, national origin or because of fraud.
The panel can hold hearings and subpoena witnesses, but has no enforcement power.
If it finds laws were broken, it can refer evidence to the Justice Department, which has the authority to enforce law. Justice Department representatives are already in Florida to gather information about alleged voting irregularities, though a formal investigation has not begun.
"I think it's very important that we do this the right way ... understanding what the issues are, and doing it very, very thoughtfully and very carefully," Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson has criticized the Justice Department for what he sees as a "wait-and-see" approach. Civil Rights Commissioner Christopher Edley Jr., echoed those feelings Friday.
"I've been very, very disheartened by what has struck me as an extraordinarily slow pace by the Justice Department," Edley said.
In response, Berry explained that in recent discussions with Reno she had gotten the impression that the department was proceeding cautiouslbecause the situation is so "fraught with political tension."
Nevertheless, Commissioner Victoria Wilson said she was "slightly dismayed that we seem to be the only governmental institution that is undertaking this."
Among allegations expected to be discussed at the meeting:
- Voting machines in minority districts were defective, old and outmoded compared with machines available elsewhere.
- Applications for absentee ballots were tampered with.
- Some Haitian-American and Hispanic voters didn't get the language assistance to which they are entitled.
- Poll workers in minority communities had no access to computers or phones to check voter registrations.
- A higher percentage of minority votes were not counted in the election tally, compared with those of whites.
- Some polls closed early, preventing many people from voting.
- An especially large police presence in certain neighborhoods, which may have deterred some people from voting.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and several black Florida officials have filed a lawsuit against Duval County, Bush and running mate Richard Cheney, claiming the county intentionally used a confusing ballot and turned away blacks from the polls.