Joseph Heller would have had a field day with the hearings of the US Commission on Civil Rights in Tallahassee last week.
When questioned about Florida’s electoral chaos and possible civil rights violations connected to the November balloting, Governor Jeb Bush passed the buck, none too gallantly, to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. He had nothing to to do with staging elections, the President-elect’s brother and Florida campaign manager maintained. Bush never mentioned that he had vetoed a $100,000 budget item that would have funded a campaign to instruct voters on how to understand and mark ballots. No, it was Harris who held the reins to the electoral system in the state he insisted.
Harris, in turn, swore several times that she knew almost nothing about the nuts and bolts of elections, despite the fact that Florida statutes charged her with running them. Commission Chairperson Mary Frances Berry later labeled Harris’ testimony “laughable.”
Harris fobbed off responsibility to her immediate underling, Clayton Roberts, director of the Florida Division of Elections. Roberts, equally versed in the tenets of Florida political leadership, tried to dump the disaster in the laps of county election supervisors, who he insisted had great autonomy in such matters.
But several supervisors had testified earlier, and angrily, to a total lack of state level support for non-partisan voter education projects and Roberts ran into trouble with the commissioners. Vice chairman Cruz Reynoso frankly told Roberts he didn’t buy his testimony.
Cornered, Roberts then came up with a classic Catch-22 explanation for the electoral and post-electoral madness. Yes, his boss, Harris, had the statutory responsibility to set standards for the conduct of elections and any needed recounts, but she didn’t have the legal authority to set those standards, so she didn’t set them.
The explanation made eyes roll on the nine-member commission and it irritated Commissioner Victoria Wilson.
“We’re on a merry-go-round called denial,” said Wilson.. She accused Harris and Roberts of abandoning the county election supervisors.
“The voters ended up paying the price,” Wilson said. “You didn’t help the voters.”
Not only did Florida’s top officials refuse to take responsibility for the balloting mess, they said they had heard nothing about possible violations of the Voting Rights Act, despite the fact that the NAACP had held an all-day hearing in Miami on such allegations just four days after the election.
“I find it very disturbing that Florida’s elected officials don’t seem to watch television or read the newspaper and that they seem to know less about what’s going on in Florida than the rest of the nation does,” Berry said.
Berry also questioned the veracity of those same officials when they said they had never discussed the expected high turnout or the subsequent problems, despite the fact that they met regularly at cabinet meetings. She said she found those claims “mindboggling.”
During the two-day hearing, one black woman testified that she felt intimidated when she was stopped on her way to her polling place by Florida Highway Patrol officers who checked her driver’s license. A black minister said his name had been purged from voter rolls after he was falsely listed as a convicted felon. Other witnesses spoke of citizens who were turned away from polling places, despite having arrived in time to vote; others, especially Haitians, who were denied the help of translators; and still others who were refused assistance when they had trouble deciphering ballots. A disproportionately high percentage of ballots later discarded for one reason or another were cast by minorities, as high as 31 percent in some precincts.
But some of the most damning testimony –besides that of Harris and Roberts themselves–came from county elections supervisors. Ion Sancho of Leon County decried Bush’s veto of the $100,000 for voter education. “And this happened in a state where some years the government spends as much as $35 million promoting the lottery,” he said.
Sancho also criticized the state legislature for approving a $4 million contract with a private firm, ChoicePoint/DBT, to purge convicted felons from the voter lists without ever consulting the county supervisors, who are ultimately responsible for those rolls. The lists have proven so inaccurate that many supervisors have refused to use them. Sancho said of 590 names submitted to him on one such list, fewer than forty proved to be convicted felons.
Berry emphasized at various times during the hearings that it was not necessary to prove deliberate misconduct for the commission to rule that violations of the Voting Rights Act occurred. A pattern of neglect and/or incompetence is enough.
The commission will hold a second hearing in Miami next month and possibly a third somehwhere else in the state before reporting its findings to Congress and the Administration. The commission is empowered to recommend civil and/or criminal penalties for those responsible for civil rights violations.