WASHINGTON — Floridians who believe they were denied their right to vote because of discrimination, fraud or other illegal practices will get a chance to testify next year before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The panel voted unanimously Friday to convene hearings in Florida and possibly other states on whether voters’ rights were violated, though the hearings will come too late to affect the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
The decision came after the group’s general counsel, Edward Hailes, told the seven commissioners about a variety of complaints from Florida voters, including allegations that blacks were turned away from the polls and that voting machinery used in minority areas was old, outmoded and defective as compared with equipment used elsewhere.
“There can be no faith in the democratic process if there is not some reasonable sense of fairness and equity in the election process,” said Commissioner Russell G. Redenbaugh.
The panel can hold hearings and subpoena witnesses, but has no enforcement power.
The number of hearings that will take place, and a timetable, have yet to be determined, but they must begin sometime after Congress meets to count votes from the Electoral College on Jan. 6.
Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry must also determine whether there is a need for hearings in other states, based on a staff report outlining voters’ complaints from around the country.
“Although we can have no impact on any particular outcome of the election, we can have a tremendous impact on the process in the future,” Redenbaugh said Friday.
The commission is an independent, bipartisan fact-finding agency. Established under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, it investigates complaints of voters alleging they are being deprived of their rights because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, national origin or because of fraud.
If it finds laws were broken, it refers evidence to the Justice Department, which can prosecute. Justice Department representatives are already in Florida to gather information about alleged voting irregularities, though a formal investigation has not begun.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson has criticized the Justice Department for what he sees as a “wait-and-see” approach. Civil Rights Commissioner Christopher Edley Jr., agreed.
“I’ve been very, very disheartened by what has struck me as an extraordinarily slow pace by the Justice Department,” Edley said.
In response, Berry explained that in recent discussions with Attorney General Janet Reno she had gotten the impression that the department was proceeding cautiously because the situation is so “fraught with political tension.”
Nevertheless, Commissioner Victoria Wilson said she was “slightly dismayed that we seem to be the only governmental institution that is undertaking this.”
Among the allegations discussed by the commission:
• Elderly citizens were made to stand on long lines and then improperly turned away from the polls.
ª Voters were told they couldn’t vote because they were convicted felons but, in fact, were not.
ª Some people had been improperly expunged from the voter rolls.
ª Some Haitian-American voters didn’t receive needed language assistance.
ª A large police presence in certain neighborhoods may have deterred some people from voting.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says it gathered 486 complaints and took more than 300 pages of sworn testimony from people who say they were blocked from voting in Florida.
That organization plans to sue the state and several counties, alleging voter intimidation and other violations.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and several black Florida officials have filed a lawsuit against Duval County, Bush and running mate Richard Cheney, claiming the county intentionally used a confusing ballot and turned away blacks from the polls.
On the Net:
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: http://www.usccr.gov