- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Accusations that Florida blacks were denied access to polling places as part of what the Rev. Jesse Jackson called "a systematic plan to disenfranchise black voters" remain under investigation, although no evidence so far has surfaced to support the charges.
Allison Bethel, head of the Florida Attorney General's Office of Civil Rights, said investigators have not discovered "any grand scheme" as charged by Mr. Jackson and others to deny blacks and minorities access to voter precincts during the Nov. 7 election, although the probe is continuing.
"We haven't received any hard and fast evidence to suggest that the problems people had in voting was intentional," she said. "What we have found at this point is a need to educate the voter and reform the system, although we can conclude that the problems had a disproportionate impact on the black community."
Mr. Jackson was among several civil rights spokesmen who charged that a "pattern of voter suppression" by Florida officials and law enforcement authorities had prohibited blacks from entering polling precincts throughout the state, allowing Texas Gov. George W. Bush to "steal" the election from Vice President Al Gore.
He accused Florida Gov. Jeb Bush of being part of a conspiracy to deny access to blacks who showed up at the polls, including stationing police near the precincts to intimidate minority voters.
Joining in the dispute have been Donna Brazile, Mr. Gore's campaign manager, who said black voters faced "dogs and guns" in trying to get to the polls, and Lyndon LaRouche, a perennial presidential candidate, who called for a congressional investigation.
"Congress ought to conduct an immediate and bipartisan investigation to investigate outright illegalities and voting patterns," Mr. LaRouche said. "We have a responsibility of coming up with justice for the voters, to secure the rights of all the voters."
Mr. Jackson said the Supreme Court's decision last week giving the election to Mr. Bush "goes down in infamy with the Dred Scott decision both disenfranchised black voters."
But in the two specific cases cited as part of the suspected conspiracy, both involving the presence of police near black polling sites, so far there is no evidence to support the accusations.
Joe Bizzaro, spokesman for Florida Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth, said the State Highway Patrol dismissed accusations that a police roadblock set up near a predominantly black precinct near Tallahassee, was aimed at intimidating blacks. He said an internal investigation determined that the roadblock had been set up in the same spot a month earlier and was routinely designed to conduct inspections.
A total of 150 drivers were stopped at the site located about 2 miles from the polling precinct and 18 warnings were issued, a dozen to white motorists. The officers stopped every fifth vehicle, as is their routine, with no regard to the race of the driver.
Mr. Jackson and others had said that only black drivers were targeted.
Col. Charles Hall, head of the Florida Highway Patrol, said the accusations were "unsubstantiated" and did "a great disservice to the men and women of the Florida Highway Patrol who put their lives on the line everyday to serve, protect and defend the rights of all Floridians."
In the second incident, a Florida radio station reported that black voters had been denied access by police to a predominantly black polling site near Tampa, but it was later determined that law enforcement officers had moved into the area as part of an ongoing robbery investigation.
A roadblock set up near the site detained only one man.
In addition to those incidents, the Associated Press reported last week it erred when it said in an earlier story that a company hired by Florida officials to compile a database of potentially ineligible voters was only required to match a person's name with the name of a felon. The state required Database Technologies of Boca Raton to use a person's name as well as address, date of birth and Social Security number, if available, to determine who would be on the list.
Mr. Jackson had charged that black voters were mistakenly labeled as felons and taken off the voter rolls because of the firm's selective database.
Several Florida officials, community leaders and law enforcement authorities said that while voting problems did occur, accusations that blacks and others were illegally denied access to polling sites as part of a coordinated scheme were unfounded.
They said logistical problems caused by an unexpectedly large turnout of black voters were to blame for most of the controversies, along with flawed registration lists, faulty ballots and voting equipment, and a flood of telephone calls to precinct offices that clogged many of the available lines.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which threatened a civil rights lawsuit over what it said was "voter intimidation" in the presidential election, spent months in a massive effort to register black voters in Florida, many of whom were first-time voters. More than 900,000 blacks voted Nov. 7, a 65 percent increase from the 1996 election.
Miss Bethel noted that her investigation found that many of the first-time voters were unfamiliar with the process, and mistakes were made by them and at the various polling precincts.
"Some things are pretty clear," she said in commenting on her ongoing probe. "We had a problem with voter knowledge, and there is a need for training and outreach. A lot of these problems can be attributed to the first-time voters, who weren't familiar with the process."
Miss Bethel said the investigation would continue and if evidence is found to substantiate accusations that voters were illegally denied access to the polls, charges would be filed. The Justice Department also is reviewing the accusations, although no formal investigation has yet begun.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will begin hearings Jan. 11 in Tallahassee, the first in a series in which information about that state's electoral system will be sought from subpoenaed records and the sworn testimony of public officials, experts and voters.
The commission, composed of four Democrats and three independents, voted unanimously this month to review accusations of voter intimidation, eligibility discrepancies, altered ballots and limited access to polling places.
Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry said the two-day hearing would focus on whether all the votes were properly counted. The commission has no enforcement power but can hold hearings and subpoena witnesses. If it decides that laws were broken, it can make criminal referrals to the Justice Department.
The NAACP said it has 486 complaints of voter irregularities and 300 pages of sworn testimony regarding the "massive, systematic exclusion of black, Jewish and immigrant voters."

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