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Democrats file 9 suits in Florida

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Democrats in Florida already are pursuing nine election-related lawsuits, accusing state election officials of conspiring to disenfranchise minority voters.

Led by the Florida Democratic Party, the People for the American Way, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the AFL-CIO, the lawsuits target, among others, Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, President Bush's brother.

The suits say Republican officials refused to count provisional ballots, improperly disqualified incomplete voter registrations, established overly restrictive rules to disproportionately hurt minority voters and actively sought to disenfranchise blacks.

Matt Miller, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign, said Republicans are "trying to scare people away from the polls."

But Mrs. Hood's spokesman, Alia Faraj, described the lawsuits as politically motivated, saying they were eroding public confidence in the election process by challenging "every single law we are following."

One suit challenges a ruling by Mrs. Hood to throw out forms on which new voters had failed to check a box indicating whether they were U.S. citizens, and another argued that although only 17 percent of the voters in Broward County and 20 percent in Miami-Dade County were black, more than a third of the voter-registration forms that were determined to be incomplete and invalid in both counties involved black voters.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has successfully challenged a ruling on how counties with touch-screen voting should conduct manual recounts. The state had banned the recounts, but an administrative-law judge agreed with the ACLU challenge and tossed that rule in August.

Mr. Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, yesterday predicted that Mr. Kerry would employ "fraud, intimidation and lawsuits" in an attempt to overturn a Bush victory on Tuesday. He said if Democrats lose at the ballot box, they would use lawyers "to try to shoehorn a victory."

"What you're seeing is an attempt, through lawsuits and through intimidation, by Democrats to convert their allies' registration fraud into voter fraud on Election Day," he said. "What you're going to see is an attempt by them, regardless of what the outcome is, to say: 'It's unfair. We're going to sue.'"

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Ed Gillespie said the lawsuits are part of a Democratic plan to "use lawyers and baseless allegations to skew the results in their favor." He said the RNC thinks that "no legitimate voter should be disenfranchised, either by being denied a vote or by having an honest vote canceled out by a fraudulent vote."

Mr. Gillespie said teams of Democratic lawyers will seek to change the rules in ways that would make it easier to engage in systematic voter fraud on Election Day.

"The American people should be confident that legitimate voters casting legitimate votes determine the outcome of this election," he said.

Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Terry McAuliffe has accused Republicans of engaging in "systematic efforts" to disenfranchise voters, imposing unlawful identification requirements on voters, throwing eligible voters off the rolls and depriving voters of their right to cast a provisional ballot.

"Regardless of party or candidate, it is the civic and moral duty of both parties to encourage complete and full participation in the democratic process," he said in a recent letter to Mr. Gillespie.

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a Florida recount be halted after 36 days, giving the state's 25 Electoral College votes to Mr. Bush, which put him in the White House. The high court, according to public statements by several justices, did not think the ruling would prompt a flood of lawsuits in future federal, state and local elections. But both major parties since have hired an army of lawyers to respond to potential legal challenges this year.

The DNC has 10,000 lawyers on call, including six "SWAT squads" that are ready to deploy on the orders of Mr. Kerry and his campaign staff. The team is headed by Steven Zack, whose law partner, David Boies, argued for former Vice President Al Gore before the Supreme Court in 2000.

The RNC is coordinating a countervailing force of lawyers to respond to voter challenges in 30,000 key precincts, mostly battleground states. The effort is being directed through Republican state party officials. Former Bush administration Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, who argued for Mr. Bush in the Supreme Court case, is expected to be a key player in any Republican legal challenges.

"We will have the folks on the ground, we will have the strategy to deal with that and we will protect the integrity of the election process," Mr. Mehlman said.

In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said after a three-month investigation that the Florida presidential election was rife with "injustice" and "ineptitude" that resulted in the disenfranchisement of black voters.

But two members of the eight-member panel, Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican, and Russell G. Redenbaugh, an independent, disputed the findings in a 50-page dissent, saying commission investigators used flawed data to justify a "preconceived, partisan belief" the election was marred by discrimination and disfranchisement of minority voters.

Mrs. Thernstrom said at the time that a more rigorous statistical analysis showed that race was unrelated to the rate of ballot spoilage and that no evidence supported accusations of disfranchisement or discrimination of minorities. She said the Florida election was "hampered only by problems that were neither motivated by racial discrimination nor served to disfranchise minority voters."

During hearings in Tallahassee, Fla., the commission called three black voters to substantiate what the panel said was a "conspiracy" to block minority voters from polling places, but none of three could show that they had been denied their right to vote. No other witnesses were called.

John Nelson, the Rev. Willie D. Whiting and Roberta Tucker, all of Tallahassee, testified under oath that they had concerns and had read about problems concerning voter irregularities, but all of them voted at their polling precincts.

Mr. Nelson said he saw unmanned police cars near different polling places on Election Day and thought that was "unusual." Mrs. Tucker said she was detained at a routine police driver's license checkpoint that had been functioning for weeks before the election, but was waved on after producing her valid license. Mr. Whiting said his name had been purged by mistake from the voting rolls when he had inaccurately been identified as a felon, but was allowed to vote after a call to an election supervisor.

Commission Chairman Mary Frances Berry, an independent who has supported Democratic candidates and causes, said at the time that even though none of the witnesses had been denied access to a polling site, "we know some bad things happened."

• Bill Sammon contributed to this article.