- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2001

Six national civil rights groups announced yesterday that they are suing Florida's top elections officials for depriving blacks and others of their right to vote in November's presidential election.

The groups' filing follows by days reports that Gov. Jeb Bush will testify in Tallahassee today before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as part of a two-day hearing regarding essentially the same complaint.

The class-action suit is being led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It includes as plaintiffs the NAACP's Florida State Conference of Branches, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, People for the American Way Foundation, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The NAACP defense fund is not part of the NAACP.

The groups took their case yesterday to the U.S. Southern District in Miami, suing on behalf of their hundreds of thousands of members and 21 individuals named in the complaint as being denied their rights under the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.

The plaintiffs accuse Katherine Harris, Florida secretary of state; Clay Roberts, director of the Florida Division of Elections; and the election supervisors in seven counties of failing to process "timely voter registration applications."

Among the many charges, the plaintiffs say election officials failed to maintain "complete and accurate voter lists at the polls," refused to let voters "who moved within the county … vote" and in general denied black voters "fundamental fairness and an equal opportunity to participate in the electoral process."

The announcement of the suit's filing took place at news conferences in the District of Columbia and in Miami. In the local meeting with reporters, officials of the various groups charged that Florida has for years systematically neglected voting rights requirements.

The plaintiffs' representatives said Florida officials have routinely neglected blacks' complaints that they were discriminated against at the polls. They indicated that Florida's lack of response to legitimate pleas for redress has steeled their determination to do what it takes to see blacks get "fair and equal treatment" at the polls

The court action is aimed at forcing Florida to get rid of punch-card voting machines and to reform its method of "purging" the names of registered voters from the voting rolls.

Plaintiffs say the names of a large number of registered black voters were "wrongfully" removed. To cite one example, they contend that when Emery Timberlake, a registered Volusia County voter, went to his polling place to vote on Nov. 7, he was told he was not on the voter roll.

Mr. Timberlake later learned his name had been removed "based on an alleged duplicate registration in Alabama." But Mr. Timberlake "has never lived in or registered to vote in Alabama," the complaint states.

The commission hearing today was called to investigate just such charges.

The Florida governor is among several people subpoenaed to appear before the commission, which voted unanimously last month to travel to Florida to investigate accusations by the NAACP and the Rev. Jesse Jackson that blacks and other minorities were denied access to polling places as part of "a systematic plan."

The commission of four Democrats and three independents also will hear from Mrs. Harris; Florida Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth; Phyllis Hampton, general counsel for the Florida Elections Commission; and Col. Charles C. Hall, director of the Florida Highway Patrol.

Officials at the state attorney general's Office of Civil Rights say they continue to review the complaints concerning a suspected plot to deny minority voters access to the polls. But they say that no "grand scheme" has been uncovered.

Still, Mr. Jackson accused Mr. Bush and Mrs. Harris of organizing the election to keep blacks from voting. During a rally here last month, he said a "pattern of voter suppression" by state officials and law enforcement authorities had blocked blacks from entering polling precincts, allowing Texas Gov. George W. Bush to "steal" the election from Vice President Al Gore.

He accused Jeb Bush, among other things, of stationing police near polling precincts to intimidate minority voters.

The NAACP has charged that minority voters were blocked from casting ballots in Florida. "Voter intimidation, voter-eligibility discrepancies and illegal tactics" took place before and during the voting, it added.

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said polling precincts were relocated without notice, voters were denied access to voting booths, polling places refused to provide bilingual ballots as required by law and police officers intimidated and harassed voters.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno sent civil rights lawyers to Florida last month, but she has not yet said whether she will order a formal investigation.

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