- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2001

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. None of three black voters called as witnesses before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, investigating charges of a "conspiracy" to block minority voters, could show yesterday that they had been denied their right to vote in the Nov. 7 election.
The key leadoff witnesses 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 that all of them had voted at their polling precincts.
Mr. Nelson said he saw unmanned police cars near separate polling precincts on Election Day and thought that was "unusual." Mr. Whiting said his name had been purged from the voting rolls after he had wrongly been identified as a felon, but he was allowed to vote after a call to an election supervisor. Miss Tucker said she was stopped at a police roadblock near a polling place, but she was allowed to proceed after producing a valid driver's license.
The commission, which voted unanimously last month to investigate accusations by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of widespread voter fraud involving minorities, could not explain why no witnesses were called to verify the accusations.
The hearing continues today and again next month in Miami.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jeb Bush told the commission that a preliminary investigation into the charges found no evidence of wrongdoing, but inquiries by both state and federal authorities are continuing.
Mr. Bush, subpoenaed to appear before the commission, said he was "confident" the Florida Attorney General's Office and the U.S. Justice Department would uncover voter irregularities if they exist.
"I am confident that the attorney general's office and the U.S. Department of Justice are the proper authorities to deal with these issues," Mr. Bush told the commission, adding that he had appointed a separate task force headed by former Florida Attorney General Jim Smith to look into widespread problems involving voting procedures and faulty equipment.
The state task force began its hearings on Monday and has until March 1 to make recommendations to the governor prior to the start of the state's legislative session.
The Civil Rights Commission voted to begin an investigation after Mr. Jackson and the NAACP said Florida officials and law enforcement authorities had engaged in a conspiracy to deny minority voters access to the polls.
Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry described the accusations as "a very serious problem" and told reporters that "we know some bad things happened," despite the fact the commission was unable yesterday to produce a single witness during the day-long hearing to say they had been denied access to a polling precinct.
Mr. Bush told the commission that the roadblock in Tallahassee reported by Miss Tucker had been set up two miles from a polling precinct as part of a random police check on drivers and vehicles. Law enforcement authorities confirmed that 150 vehicles were stopped and 18 warnings were issued, a dozen to white motorists. They said the officers stopped every fifth vehicle, without regard to the occupant's race.
The governor did not elaborate on the Justice Department probe, only confirming that it was under way. Justice Department officials have said only that lawyers from its civil right division had been in Florida, but that no decision had yet been made on whether a formal investigation would be undertaken.
Mrs. Berry said she had not yet reached any conclusion on whether there was "a systematic conspiracy to discriminate" against minority voters, but said state officials were responsible for ensuring that elections are "fair and efficient."
"I am religiously and studiously avoiding reaching any conclusion of what happened here," she said. "I have not concluded that there was a conspiracy."
She also noted that Florida law allows the governor to appoint "special officers to investigate violations of election law," but had not yet decided whether the evidence was sufficient to suggest that he should have done so.
"I just don't know yet," she said.
Mrs. Berry also suggested that Florida's election failures were probably "bipartisan," since voters in both Republican and Democratic counties experienced problems.
Last month, Mr. Jackson who is not scheduled to testify before the commission accused Mr. Bush and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris of organizing the election to deny blacks and other minority voters access to the polls. During a rally here, he said a "pattern of voter suppression" by state officials and law enforcement officers prohibited minorities from entering polling precincts throughout the state, allowing Texas Gov. George W. Bush to "steal" the election.
Mr. Jackson accused Mr. Bush of ordering the placement of state police near polling precincts to intimidate minority voters.
The NAACP also charged that minority voters had been prevented from casting ballots, adding that "voter intimidation, voter-eligibility discrepancies and illegal tactics" took place before and during the election.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said polling places had been relocated without notice, some voters were denied access to polling booths, polling places refused to provide bilingual ballots as required by law and police officers intimidated and harassed minority voters.
The NAACP filed a lawsuit this week, with other civil rights organizations, accusing Mr. Bush, Mrs. Harris and others of suspected wrongdoing during the Nov. 7 elections. The suit said black voters and others were disenfranchised by institutionalized racism and called for sweeping changes in how Florida elections are operated.
The presidential election was decided by Florida's 25 electoral votes, which went to George W. Bush. Turnout among black voters increased by 70 percent in the November election over 1996, with 93 percent of the black vote going to Vice President Al Gore.
The commission voted last month to hold the hearings, with Edward Hailes, the commission's general counsel, saying the panel would probe voting machine irregularities, altered ballots, limited access to polling places and the presence of police that might have deterred some people from voting.
The hearings continue today, with Mrs. Harris and Florida Attorney General Robert S. Butterworth scheduled to testify. Also on the agenda are Col. Charles C. Hall, head of the Florida Highway Patrol, and L. Clayton Roberts, director of the Florida Division of Elections.


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