Rights Panel Backs Florida Voting Report Amid Dissent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission approved a strongly worded report Friday arguing that tens of thousands of African Americans were disenfranchised in Florida's 2000 presidential election, but the panel's two Republican-appointed members bitterly denounced the report as inaccurate and flawed.

The report says evidence clearly shows Florida's policies and practices violated U.S. law by unfairly penalizing minority voters. The Justice Department agreed to review the controversial findings to determine if further inquiry is warranted.

The Justice Department's civil rights division is already conducting 12 investigations of Florida's troubled election, according to spokesman Dan Nelson. He said the probes all involve possible violations of the Voting Rights Act.

The commission also announced that it had begun a preliminary investigation into whether African American voters were improperly denied a chance to vote in disproportionate numbers in up to 33 other states. California is not on the list, officials said, but may be added later.

The panel voted, 6 to 2, to approve the draft report after a heated discussion that reflected the group's deep political divisions. Four Democrats, three independents and one Republican sit on the commission.

Abigail Thernstrom, the lone Republican, repeatedly challenged the report's methodology, findings and recommendations. "I am obviously not convinced there is a violation of the Voting Rights Act," she said.

Thernstrom and Russell G. Redenbaugh, an independent who was appointed to the panel in 1990 by President Bush, later issued a joint statement that blasted the report for "the shoddy quality of the work, its stolen-election message, and its picture of black citizens as helpless victims in the American political process."

Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, a registered independent, denied that politics played a role. She called the report "bipartisan in its criticism," noting that it also questioned the role of dozens of Democrats who are county election supervisors.

The report used statistical analysis of precinct and county election returns to argue that 14.4% of all ballots cast by African Americans in Florida were invalidated, compared with 1.6% of ballots cast by other voters.

"Many tens of thousands of African Americans . . . who thought they cast a valid vote had their ballots rejected," said Allan Lichtman, an American University historian who prepared the analysis. He said he did not know why so many blacks spoiled ballots in so many places.

The commission has no enforcement powers, but its reports to the president and Congress often spur legal or legislative action. A White House spokesman declined comment on the report.

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