U.S. to sue 3 Florida counties over votes

Justice Department says voters' rights violated in 2000 presidential election

May 22, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department said yesterday that it will sue three Florida counties to force them to remedy irregularities that violated the rights of voters in the disputed 2000 presidential election.

The government will also file two other lawsuits, against cities in Tennessee and Missouri, Ralph F. Boyd Jr., the assistant attorney general for civil rights, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. Boyd did not name the counties and cities involved, though one local official said his county - Miami-Dade - is among the three in Florida.

At the same time, Boyd said, the government is negotiating with the localities and hopes to settle the allegations. Officials said the lawsuits could be filed within 60 days.

Boyd told the committee that the lawsuits will allege disparities in the treatment of minority voters, improper purging of voter lists, violations of "motor voter" registration rules and a failure to ensure access to polling places by disabled voters.

In June, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that flawed election procedures in November 2000 disproportionately hurt minority voters. The commission found that the presidential votes of African-Americans in Florida were nearly 10 times more likely to be rejected than were the ballots of white voters.

The Florida vote ignited a political furor, with Democrats arguing that irregularities had favored George W. Bush over Al Gore. The Supreme Court settled the matter in Bush's favor, and Bush won the state by an official margin of just 537 votes, claiming its electoral votes.

The outcome sparked a highly charged dispute after the election, with Democrats in Congress and other critics, including NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, charging that minorities had been systematically excluded from voting. The Justice Department received more than 11,000 complaints from voters after the election.

Some Democrats questioned yesterday whether Boyd and the Justice Department were pursuing the matter earnestly, noting that the election occurred more than a year and half ago and that four private interest groups managed to file suit within months of the election.

But Boyd said the lawsuits are being prepared without consideration of which party they favor.

"We're going to follow the investigative trail, the evidence, wherever it goes, without regard to politics and without regard to whose, if anyone's, ox is being gored," he said.

`Bittersweet victory'

Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for Gore, said in a statement last night: "Like all Americans, Al Gore believes that voting is a fundamental right. Any effort to ensure that right is never again violated is a step in the right direction." Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile, called Boyd's announcement a "bittersweet victory."

The government's plans to file suit were also praised by Republicans.

"We're glad that they're following up on problems that existed in the 2000 elections," Mindy Tucker, a spokeswoman for the national Republican Party, said of Justice officials. "We think it's important that elections be carried out fairly and with integrity."

Boyd's statements about the lawsuits yesterday were made in response to a question from Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat who has pressed the Justice Department to force states and localities to reform their voting systems.

Widespread complaints

It is unclear how the department's civil rights division chose the three Florida counties to sue. After the 2000 election, Republicans and Democrats leveled charges at more than a half-dozen Florida counties.

In Duval County, a two-page ballot confounded voters with instructions to vote on every page. In Seminole County, Democrats accused vote counters of fixing absentee ballots.

A recount in Volusia County turned up uncounted ballots in someone's car. Palm Beach County became famous for the "butterfly ballot," which confused voters with its shape and arrows. And voters in Miami-Dade complained of language problems and a lack of translators. Last night, the county's lawyer, Robert Ginsburg, acknowledged negotiating toward a settlement with the Justice Department.

Democrats accused officials in Gadsden and Leon counties of racial bias at the polls. Some black voters in Leon County complained that police had pulled over African-American drivers near a polling center. In Escambia County, problems arose with absentee ballots.

In Missouri, a lawsuit was filed in St. Louis, claiming that minorities had had similar trouble at the polls. And in Nashville, Tenn., the Justice Department investigated claims last year that names were missing from voting rosters and that polling times and places had been changed without public notice.

At the Senate hearing yesterday, Edwards told Boyd: "What we need to make sure is that we take steps quickly enough to ensure that the problems that occurred in the last election don't occur in the next election."

Edwards had written to Attorney General John Ashcroft in January, pressing for answers. An aide to the senator said Edwards was frustrated by the muted response.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat on the committee, said in a statement that he welcomed the Justice Department's latest actions. But, Kennedy said, "I question why these investigations have taken 18 months."

Boyd told the committee that the investigations and the lawsuits against the three counties and two cities would be wrapped up before mid-term elections in November.

He did not disclose details of the negotiations. But Ginsburg said local officials have discussed how to help Haitian-Americans cast ballots.

"We've been talking to the Justice Department along those lines and working with them to see what would make sense," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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