Sun, Jan 14, 2001 - Page 1 News List

Rights group pans Florida over handling of election

REUTERS , TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA

A federal civil rights panel blasted Florida's top election official on Friday for not providing leadership or adequate oversight in a presidential election that became a national embarrassment and prompted a federal investigation.

For most of an hour, members of the US Commission on Civil Rights grilled Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris over her hands-off approach to the state's recently concluded election, a convoluted spectacle that kept the fate of the US presidency in doubt for more than a month.

"I heard, today especially, from supervisors [of elections] who were desperate, desperate for your help," commissioner Victoria Wilson said. "And the word that comes to mind is that you abandoned them. They were abandoned by your department."

Harris, a Republican who served as co-chair for George W. Bush's campaign in Florida, was widely criticized by Democrats during the fierce fight over the key state of Florida.

The civil rights commission convened in Tallahassee for two days of hearings to investigate allegations that thousands of voters were denied the opportunity to vote on Nov. 7 and that tens of thousands more had their ballots rejected. The panel has scheduled a public hearing in Miami next month.

The eight-member panel unanimously agreed to investigate the 2000 presidential election after civil rights leaders including the Reverend Jesse Jackson alleged widespread disenfranchisement of voters due to technical snafus, poorly trained election workers and intimidation at the polls.

Despite Harris's repeated assertions that Florida's Constitution places the primary responsibility of elections oversight on local supervisors of elections, commission panelists bristled at Harris' apparent lack of knowledge of election law or her department's procedures.

Harris repeatedly deferred questions to the director of the division of elections, Clay Roberts.

Citing testimony earlier in the day, commissioners said Harris' office had ample indications that turnout would be high and local supervisors of elections were facing challenges. Following the election, Harris gave local officials little if any direction in how to react to recounts, challenges and other post-election issues, the commission said.

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