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Report Finds Violations In Fla. Election

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights approved a report Friday that suggests blacks disproportionately had their ballots discounted in Florida's elections, leading to widespread violations of the Voting Rights Act.

The panel accepted investigators' findings by a 6-2 vote, with both members appointed by Republicans voting no.

The report asks the Justice department to investigate the problems in Florida. Black voters had their ballots discounted at a rate far higher than nonblacks, the report said. The commission says it has no evidence of a conspiracy but would like an investigation to find out if any of the disparity was intentional.

Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry said she hoped the report will be sent to President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Congress and she hopes it will renew interest in electoral reforms.

"One of the most disappointing things to me is that I thought there would be more interest in electoral reform," she said afterward.

The report inflamed passions about the close vote in Florida six months after the election was finally decided. It said thousands of Floridians, especially black voters, were deprived of their votes by outdated equipment, improper purging of voter rolls and inadequate access to voting booths.

The report is harshly critical of state officials, including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris.

Harris on Thursday accused the commission's chairwoman of putting politics above solving problems related to the disputed election.

Harris said in a news release that Berry's refusal to accept responsibility for leaking a draft report critical of Harris and the governor is evidence she is trying to use the panel's investigation of Florida's election "to score political points, rather than to seek genuine solutions."

Before the commission voted Friday, Charles Canady, general counsel for Bush, said the report "grossly mischaracterizes the role of the governor and other state-level officials in overseeing the administration of elections in Florida." He said the governor has taken a leadership role in reforming the state's election system, but was not responsible for carrying out or overseeing the preparations for the 2000 elections.

A researcher told the commission Friday that black voters in Florida had their ballots discounted at a far higher rate than did nonblacks in the presidential election.

The result was that tens of thousands of black voters were disenfranchised, said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University.

Lichtman said there was a "tremendous disparity" between the rates at which black and nonblack votes were not counted.

"I was quite amazed by what I found," said Lichtman, a voting rights expert who reviewed Florida vote data for the commission. For example, he said, in Duval County (Jacksonville) about one in five ballots cast by blacks were not counted. That was based on a detailed analysis of the county vote roken down by precinct.

The rate of black votes rejected was sometimes as much as three times or more the rate of nonblack votes rejected.

Civil Rights commissioners Abigail Thernstrom and Russell Redenbaugh, both appointed by Republicans, also issued a harsh criticism of the draft report and Berry, saying that under her direction the panel has become "dedicated to furthering a partisan agenda."

"The shoddy quality of the work, its stolen election message and its picture of black citizens as helpless victims in the American political process is neither in the public interest nor in the interest of black and other minority citizens," they wrote.

Redenbaugh said Friday that the report's findings do not accurately reflect the evidence in the hearings, and too many of the findings are based on anecdotal evidence.

Berry says she will ask the commission for permission to request a meeting with Ashcroft and will ask for a probe into whether the vote disenfranchisement of minorities was intentional.

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