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Florida Poll Workers Discouraged Hispanic Voters In 2000 Election

3 counties charged with failing to provide enough help to non-English-speaking voters during the 2000 presidential election.


MAY 25, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON – Officials in three Florida counties have confirmed that they are facing potential Justice Department lawsuits charging voting rights violations.

Elections officials in Miami-Dade, Osceola and Orange Counties say they are in talks with the department over complaints that they failed to provide language assistance to voters with limited proficiency in English. In Orange and Osceola Counties the charges involve Spanish-speaking voters. The case in Miami-Dade County focuses on Creole-speaking Haitian voters.

The Justice Department is also filing suits in Missouri and Tennessee. The Missouri case charges that districts in St. Louis improperly listed voters as inactive; the Tennessee case involves a state agency's potential violations of voter registration procedures.

But the Florida action has Democrats and civil rights groups accusing the Bush administration of dodging the most egregious charges of discrimination in the 2000 presidential race. Those critics also say that Duval County is conspicuously absent. Duval County, in and around Jacksonville, had among the highest numbers of complaints after the election, including charges county elections officials purged voters wrongly accused of being felons.

Civil rights groups are also asking why the Justice Department did not address politically charged complaints from predominantly black districts in Florida, like those from thousands of voters that they were unjustly turned away from their precincts for not having multiple forms of identification.

"This is a half-hearted attempt to whitewash the department's lack of action, and to sweep aside the pain and humiliation so many voters felt on Election Day," said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's campaign for president and runs the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute.

The legal actions were announced on Tuesday by Ralph Boyd, the assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division, at the end of a contentious hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Several groups also denounced the Justice Department's failure to file suits against Florida state agencies. The department's actions do not address, for example, charges that the office of the secretary of state, Katherine Harris, wrongfully purged thousands of blacks from voter rolls.

Figures from a report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights, examining possible improprieties in the election, estimated that at least 8,000 voters were incorrectly cited as having criminal records, resulting in their being barred from voting. The purging, civil rights advocates claimed, disproportionately affected black voters.

Critics said they agreed with the Justice Department that language assistance to voters who have difficulties speaking English is a high priority in election reform. A lawsuit by a coalition of liberal civil rights groups, including the People for the American Way Foundation, the N.A.A.C.P. and the American Civil Liberties Union, also accused multiple counties in Florida of failing to provide bilingual voter information and translation services at the polls.

But these critics said that the language issue is the easiest for the Bush administration to use to make political gains among immigrants.

"They are actively courting Hispanics, and they are also trying to make inroads in the Haitian community," said Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "But the failure to address the disenfranchisement of African-Americans makes their whole case a sham."

The Justice Department refused to comment, either on its cases or the charges from its critics, saying it would be "inappropriate to discuss matters further while the department is in presuit negotiations."

Supporters of the Justice Department's action say the suits make legal sense. "Disparate impact is a problematic legal matter and difficult to prove," said Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a right-leaning group that opposes affirmative action and bilingual education.

"They have identified violations and they are taking steps to remedy them," he said. "The notion that Ralph Boyd, a former prosecutor, would shy away from bringing reasonable charges because of political pressure is ridiculous."

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