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.