Florida's top elections officials and a leading U.S. civil rights group said on Tuesday they had settled a lawsuit that alleged Florida systematically excluded thousands of minority voters from the 2000 presidential election.
The class-action lawsuit, filed in January 2001 after George W. Bush claimed the U.S. presidency by just 537 Florida votes, alleged election officials systematically kept blacks away from voting booths by illegally dropping them from voter rolls, improperly handling their registrations so they did not appear on voter lists or by simply turning them away from polling places.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed the suit against elections supervisors in seven counties and then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris but settled it with her successor, Jim Smith.
"It's a long time coming. We're glad to finally be here," said Thomasina Williams, an attorney for NAACP.
The two sides said the settlement will build on the Florida Election Reform Act of 2001, which included changes in registration list maintenance, provided funding for improved voter education and poll worker training, and created alternative voting and registration procedures.
"The most significant part of the settlement is how the central voter database will be set up, restoring to the rolls the people who were wrongfully purged," said Anita Hodgkiss, a plaintiffs' attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.
The agreement was filed with U.S. District Judge Alan Gold on Tuesday and must be approved by the court before the lawsuit is considered settled.
Since the messy 2000 election, Florida and some of its counties have revamped antiquated voting procedures, including the replacement of old punch card ballot systems with modern touch-screen voting machines.
"The settlement is significant because it means that Florida officials finally recognized the need to correct past election process problems," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said. "The new state laws following the 2000 election did not go far enough to make sure all Florida voters would have equal access to the polls."
The NAACP had said the chaotic aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, won by Mr. Bush over former Vice President Al Gore after a fierce five-week court battle, provided evidence of "massive disenfranchisement of people of color."
The settlement will help restore voters improperly purged from voter lists, improve voter registration methods and help fix communication problems at polling stations.
Although the agreement effectively ended the litigation, Hodgkiss said the plaintiffs would be carefully monitoring future elections to make sure elections officials were abiding by it.
She said she does not expect the settlement to be in effect before the November general election because the Justice Department likely will review it.
The agreements filed with the court on Tuesday were reached with Smith; Florida Director of Elections Edward Kast; the state's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the Department of Children and Families, which are both involved in voter registration; and Hillsborough and Orange counties.
Separate agreements were reached earlier with five other counties, Miami-Dade, Broward, Leon, Duval and Volusia.