Miami Herald
December 4, 2000


U.S. Checking Bias Charges in Florida Vote


BY ANDREA ROBINSON AND DANIEL de VISE

MIAMI, FL. -- U.S. Justice Department investigators are in Florida to examine allegations that thousands of black voters were prevented or discouraged from casting ballots in the presidential election.

The move comes days after national NAACP President Kweisi Mfume blasted the federal agency for what he sees as foot-dragging in the case, and ordered the organization's battery of attorneys to prepare a federal lawsuit.

Last month, the NAACP sent the Justice Department hundreds of pages of sworn testimony from mostly black Floridians who alleged they were prevented from voting because of intimidation or because they were blocked by workers at precincts.

Chief among the complaints: Longtime registered voters' names were mysteriously omitted from voter rolls; people were barred from voting because they didn't have photo IDs; Haitian Americans were prevented from getting help from nearby Creole-language interpreters; polling places were closed, leaving voters perplexed about where they should vote.

State and national elected officials and activists also have called on the federal government to investigate why thousands of presidential ballots from heavily black precincts were not included in machine tallies.

On Sunday, a department spokeswoman said two representatives had been dispatched to Florida to help determine whether the agency should open a formal investigation.

``We've gotten many allegations that have come in to the department, and we are reviewing those allegations to see what, if any, federal investigation is warranted,'' said Justice Department spokeswoman Kara Peterman.

SURPRISE, SUPPORT

Learning late Sunday of the Justice Department action, Miami-Dade County Elections Supervisor David Leahy said: ``Intimidation? I never heard that. How would anyone intimidate them from going to the polls? That doesn't make any sense.''

Leahy expressed his support for the federal review, saying, ``I'm glad the Justice Department is going to come down and check it out.''

George W. Bush campaign spokesman Tucker Eskew declined to comment, saying he had not yet reviewed the NAACP case in detail.

Peterman stressed that the Justice Department remains in the ``information gathering'' stage and has not ordered a formal investigation into allegations of discrimination at polling places. She said she did not know the identities of the two investigators, and she would not disclose exactly what they are doing or where.

Chances are slim that the Justice Department inquiry will have any real impact on the outcome of the November election.

Justice officials can take criminal action in instances of criminal electoral misconduct, such as ballot-box stuffing. The department also can bring civil lawsuits in some cases to alter discriminatory voting procedures.

But criminal action doesn't look likely in this instance, a Justice Department source said. And the department has no authority to change the results of the Nov. 7 election.

Before Sunday's announcement, it was unclear what action, if any, Justice officials would take in response to repeated demands by civil rights leaders and the Congressional Black Caucus that they investigate black voters' complaints.

``Every day I get more and more complaints from constituents in my district who felt that they were intimidated or they were harassed or they were not given any help at the polling place,'' said U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Miami, who has pushed for a federal probe.

MUCH CONFUSION

``It just appears to me that the whole election was a quagmire of confusion.''

Meek added, ``It's the old story: Anything's good enough for us here in the black community.''

Florida NAACP President Adora Obi Nweze said she had strong doubts that the Justice Department would order an investigation.

``Democracy is not at work. They aren't taking it seriously, because they don't want to get involved politically,'' Nweze said. ``You have a lame duck Justice Department. If they make a certain move they probably feel they won't be the ones to carry it through, thereby leaving themselves up for ridicule.''

A precinct-by-precinct analysis by The Herald of Florida's five most populous counties and others with high ballot rejection rates found the worst overvote problems centered in Democratic strongholds and particularly in predominantly black precincts.

Of the five precincts with the highest rejection rates in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, 23 backed Gore, even when the overvotes are subtracted. Blacks made up the majority in 18 of the precincts.

In Miami-Dade, up to 10 percent of ballots were not included in machine counts in some Liberty City and Overtown precincts.

``It's devastating to think that Americans would sit by and cavalierly think that because it's black folks, we don't count. If it were white people the reaction would be different,'' Nweze said.

Pompano Beach resident Virgie Hawkins complained to lawyers from the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project that she drove to four precincts trying in vain to find where she should vote.

Her old precinct at Ely High School had closed and she said she wasn't notified of a new location.

Herald staff writers Mark Silva and Amy Driscoll also contributed to this report.

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald. All rights reserved.

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