Jeb Bush blamed for unfair Florida election!

Civil rights commission says minorities were disenfranchised by governor's 'gross dereliction' in ignoring problems

Special report: the US elections Julian Borger in Washington Wednesday June 6, 2001 The Guardian

Thousands of black electors in Florida were disenfranchised in last November's election by an electoral system tainted by "injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency" a leaked report by the US civil rights commission says.

It accuses Governor Jeb Bush, the president's brother, and his secretary of state, Katherine Harris, of "gross dereliction" of duty, saying they "chose to ignore mounting evidence" of the problems. The eight-strong commission, whose report will be published on Friday, found that black voters were "10 times more likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected", and pointed to the use of a flawed list of felons and ex-felons to purge the voting rolls. Less than 20% of Florida's total population is black but half the prison inmates are black.

"It is not a question of a recount or even an accurate count, but more pointedly the issue is those whose exclusion from the right to vote amounted to a 'No Count'," the report says. But the commission failed to find "conclusive evidence" that there was a conspiracy among Florida officials to disenfranchise voters. Republican-appointed members distanced themselves from the conclusions and expressed anger that it had been leaked before they had seen a final draft.

Aides to Governor Bush and Ms Harris criticised the leak too. A spokeswoman said that since the election the governor had approved a raft of reform measures aimed at improving the state's voting system. Russell Redenbaugh, one of the Republican appointees, told the New York Times: "There are a number of people who are so displeased with the outcome of the election that they would do almost anything to cast a cloud over the legitimacy of the election and the legitimacy of this administration."

After more than a month of haggling over recounts and the intervention of the supreme court, George Bush was declared winner of the presidential election in Florida by 537 votes. The report says the tiny margin was overwhelmed by the numbers of disproportionately minority voters denied the right to vote by the flawed database of felons, and the widespread use of outdated voting technology in black and Hispanic districts, where the resources to correct mistakes were scarcest.

In an extract quoted by the Washington Post, the report says: "Despite the closeness of the election, it was widespread voter disenfranchisement and not the dead-heat contest that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election." The felons list was put together by a private company, Database Technologies (DBT), which has conceded that it was riddled with mistakes but says it warned the Florida authorities to check it before using it.

Ms Harris's office said that was the responsibility of elections supervisors in the state's 67 counties, but many local officials said they lacked the means to verify it. Some opted not to use the list at all, which allowed some ex-convicts to cast votes illegally. But in counties where the list was used, many voters with clean records found themselves barred from voting because they shared a name with a convict. The commission found that poor counties with high minority populations were more likely than wealthier white ones to use inefficient voting systems which rejected a higher percentage of ballots.

Some Hispanic and Haitian voters were not given ballots in their native languages or provided bilingual assistance. The report criticises Ms Harris's decision to reject a budget proposal to spend $100,000 on educating voters. The Florida attorney general's office said it was investigating the allegation of civil rights violations and would give "due consideration" to the commission's report. The commission is expected to call for a US justice department inquiry.

"The report underscores officially what most of us have known all along," Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, told the Washington Post. Barbara Arnwine, who runs the Lawyers Committee of Civil Rights Under Law, said the report confirmed her organisation's findings.

"I was absolutely shocked by the scale of voter denial and the disenfranchisement of black voters." The action of the state authorities was "a violation of the fundamental trust that we all give to state-elected officials to protect our right to vote".

Report: Fla. Accepted Flawed Ballots

Saturday July 14 8:08 PM ET Report: Fla. Accepted Flawed Ballots

By The Associated Press,

A New York Times investigation into overseas ballots that helped George W. Bush win the presidency found that Florida election officials, facing intense GOP pressure to accept military votes, counted hundreds of overseas absentee ballots that failed to comply with state election laws.

The Times published the results of its investigation in Sunday editions. The newspaper's six-month examination of the 2,490 overseas ballots accepted after Election Day found 680 questionable votes. But while that number is greater than Bush's 537-vote victory in Florida, the paper concluded that Bush still would likely have defeated Al Gore even if those flawed ballots had been discarded. Gary King, a Harvard expert on voting patterns and statistical models, concluded that Bush's winning margin would most likely have been reduced to 245 votes if the overseas votes had been thrown out. There was only a slight chance that discarding the questionable ballots would have made Gore the winner. It was impossible to simply count the questionable votes because the ballots themselves are separated from the envelopes containing voter information. The paper found no evidence of fraud by either party, though it did interview voters who admitted they had cast illegal ballots after Election Day. It found no support for suspicions that the Bush campaign had organized an effort to solicit late votes. After the uncertain results of Nov. 7, both Gore and Bush began high-pressure postelection campaigns to eke out a victory. The importance of overseas ballots - and particularly military votes - quickly became apparent.

The paper documented a successful effort by Republicans to count the maximum number of overseas ballots in counties won by Bush, particularly those with a high concentration of military voters, while seeking to disqualify overseas ballots in counties won by Gore. Counties carried by Gore accepted two in 10 ballots that had no evidence they were mailed on or before Election Day. Counties carried by Bush accepted six in 10 of such ballots. Bush counties were four times as likely as Gore counties to count ballots lacking witness signatures and addresses.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the Times: ``This election was decided by the voters of Florida a long time ago. And the nation, the president and all but the most partisan Americans have moved on.''

``The story reinforces the perception that members of the Bush team believe the rules don't apply to them,'' Democratic Party spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri told the Associated Press on Saturday. Of the 680 flawed ballots, the paper found: 344 ballots with no evidence they were cast on or before Election Day; 183 ballots with United States postmarks rather than overseas postmarks; 96 ballots lacking the required signature or address of a witness; 169 ballots from voters who were not registered, who failed to sign the envelope or who had not requested a ballot as required by federal law; five ballots received after the Nov. 17 deadline; and 19 voters who cast two ballots, both of which counted.

The total number of flaws exceeds the number of questionable overseas ballots because many of the envelopes had multiple defects. Although Bush held a fluctuating lead throughout the 36 days of recounts and court fights after Nov. 7, the Florida Department of State's Web site shows that if none of the overseas absentee ballots were counted after Election Day, Gore would have won Florida by 202 votes, and retained Democratic control of the White House. Benjamin L. Ginsberg, national counsel to the Bush campaign, recalled those days as being ``as hardball a game as any of us had ever been involved in.''

Judge Anne Kaylor, chairwoman of the Polk County canvassing board, said the combination of Republican pressure and court rulings caused her board to count some ballots that would probably have been considered illegal in past years. ``I think the rules were bent,'' said Kaylor, a Democrat. ``Technically, they were not supposed to be accepted. Any canvassing board that says they weren't under pressure is being less than candid.''

Ginsberg said, ``We didn't ask anybody to do anything that wasn't in the law as it existed on Election Day.'' While both the Postal Service and the Pentagon worked hard to ensure the timely delivery of absentee ballots to Florida, the Bush campaign soon began to pressure the Pentagon, the paper said. Ginsberg faxed a letter to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, the only Republican in the Clinton cabinet, on Nov. 11 urging that ballots be collected immediately.

In the end, the vast majority of the ballots - 97 percent - arrived before the Nov. 17 deadline. In previous elections, according to records and interviews, as many as a third arrived after the 10-day window had closed. The Times also found a substantial number of people who knowingly cast their ballots after Election Day. Of the 91 voters interviewed whose ballots had either missing or late postmarks, 30 acknowledged marking ballots late. Only four were counted. While the Bush campaign loudly criticized a Gore supporter's memo that laid out a strategy to challenge overseas ballots, the Bush team had its own such strategy, the Times reported.

A Bush campaign memo laid out a two-pronged strategy - telling Bush lawyers how to challenge ``illegal'' civilian votes that they assumed would be for Gore and also how to defend equally defective military ballots, the Times said. Ginsberg acknowledged that they had fought for military ballots while opposing ballots from civilians. Others involved in the campaign denied it. While the election was finally decided when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to allow a statewide manual recount because of potential equal rights violations, the court never considered unequal treatment of overseas absentee votes. Gore campaign aides argued they should include overseas votes in their legal challenge, but Gore rejected the idea, Democratic lawyer Joe Sandler told the Times.