- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

The two most outspoken members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission tangled again yesterday, this time accusing one another of lying as they testified before a congressional panel seeking input on election reform.
Abigail Thernstrom and Mary Frances Berry, sitting side by side in front of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, took turns disputing each other's accusations of dishonesty in their respective findings on the fractious Florida election.
At one point, Mrs. Thernstrom, the only Republican on the eight-member commission, accused Miss Berry of dishonesty about whether the chairwoman had withheld election figures from her.
Miss Berry, a declared political independent who has contributed thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates over the years, shot back, "It is an absolute falsehood. She was not denied data. It makes a good story. 'I was denied this. I was denied that.' It is a lie. I am 63 years old. I'm too old, and I'm tired of playing games."
The dissenting report disputed the commission report's notion that black voters were nine times as likely as nonblacks to have their votes thrown out, instead noting that economic status and education were the likely factors that resulted in several thousand votes being tossed as invalid.
It also noted that with a large get-out-the-vote effort taking place in black communities nationwide, many of these people were first-time voters unfamiliar with voting technology and rules.
During a 10-minute presentation to the committee, Mrs. Thernstrom noted that the commission's report "did not even recognize the concept of voter error. It appears there is little relationship between ballot spoilage and race."
Mrs. Thernstrom said that she sought to use the same raw data the commission used in its report, but was denied.
Miss Berry and statistician Allan Lichtman, whose work was cited in the commission report "had the temerity to tell us that it was not available," said Mrs. Thernstrom.
When Miss Berry later denied withholding such information, Mrs. Thernstrom fired again.
"I would never publicly call a commissioner a liar, but I have just heard a lie," Mrs. Thernstrom said.
At the outset of the 21/2-hour hearing, Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, told a packed gallery filled with commission lawyers, congressional aides and media, that his panel was seeking input on an election reform bill that has "wide bipartisan support."
The panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, immediately questioned the commission report, which was released June 8, that stated black voters were disenfranchised in the Florida election.
It does not address that the media wrongly called the state for Al Gore before the polls closed in the panhandle of Florida, discouraging many voters, the Kentucky Republican said.
"This report is rather narrow in scope," Mr. McConnell said. "It fails also to address the military ballots that were excluded during the count."
Mr. Dodd lauded Miss Berry's efforts but largely ignored the 50-page dissent submitted yesterday by Mrs. Thernstrom and commissioner Russell Redenbaugh.
Disagreements between Miss Berry and Mrs. Thernstrom have been fueled by an apparent personal dislike for each other.
Miss Berry, a commissioner since 1980, has been a target of conservatives for some time. Mrs. Thernstrom, who was appointed to the panel by the Republican Congress in January, often contradicts and questions Miss Berry during the commission's monthly meeting, drawing Miss Berry's ire.
Yesterday, though, it was Miss Berry's audience, with Mr. McConnell the lone Republican committee member present during questioning of the two. At several points, the gallery erupted in cheers when Miss Berry made a point during disputes with Mrs. Thernstrom.
After one exchange, Mr. Dodd had to call for order as several aides — and at least two journalists — cheered Miss Berry's acerbic wit.
"This is a hearing, not a rally," he said.
For her part, Miss Berry stood by the report, which she said was written by staff lawyers despite the contentions of Mrs. Thernstrom and Mr. Redenbaugh that the commission chairman had directed the staff.
During a 15-minute presentation to the panel, Miss Berry declared the Florida election to be infested with "ineptitude, inefficiencies and injustice."
Florida officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris, "washed their hands of responsibilities," she added, again restating the report's conclusions.
Both the governor and Mrs. Harris have disputed the commission report, calling it partisan and inaccurate.
Mrs. Thernstrom said there could never be proof that race was involved in the tossing of ballots.
"No statistical analysis of the rates of voter spoilage can be precise and certain. Ballots are secret. We cannot be sure of the race of voters whose ballots were rejected," Mrs. Thernstrom said.
During the discussion between the commissioners and the Senate panel, several points of the commission's disputed report on the Florida election came up, most approved by at least nodding gesture from the mostly Democratic senators in attendance.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, congratulated Miss Berry warmly at the outset of the meeting with a wink and a welcome.
"I'm glad that you took the initiative and went to Florida," Mrs. Feinstein said. Sympathetically, the senator said to Miss Berry: "There are a lot of people in this country who feel their vote doesn't count."
The commission's report, which is still being finalized, calls for Attorney General John Ashcroft to start an investigation.
"Mr. Ashcroft should systematically review these issues," Miss Berry told the senators. "We will continue to press the attorney general to investigate."
The Justice Department did not return a phone call seeking comment.

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