Justice Dept. Urged To Widen Fla. Probe Groups: Voter List Purges an Issue

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Justice Dept. Urged To Widen Fla. Probe Groups: Voter List Purges an Issue

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 24, 2002; Page A03

The Justice Department's intervention in three Florida counties, which it accuses of violating voters' rights in the 2000 presidential election, deals mainly with would-be voters who needed "language assistance," according to letters released by the counties.

Some civil rights groups complained yesterday that the inquiry should tackle a more controversial issue: Florida's purge of voter registration lists, which allegedly denied many minority voters access to the ballot box in November 2000.

"Most of what they are pursuing are language-assistance issues," said Anita Hodgkiss, director of the voting rights project for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. But the inquiry also should address the "statewide purging of voters," she said -- an issue that might draw Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris into the voting rights litigation.

The Justice Department told Congress on Tuesday it would file suit soon in three Florida counties -- and in jurisdictions in Tennessee and Missouri -- alleging voter rights violations from the 2000 election. The department said it expects all five local governments to settle the civil cases immediately rather than contest them.

Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock defended the agency's actions yesterday. "The department is committed to doing a professional investigation, and as assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd indicated in testimony [to the Senate Judiciary Committee] on Tuesday, he will follow the facts wherever they lead," she said.

The Florida counties of Miami-Dade, Orange and Osceola released copies of the Justice Department's letters citing its intention to sue over language issues. No references were made to voter list purges, and no references were made to allegations involving black voters.

In Osceola County, Justice officials charged that the lack of "bilingual poll workers" resulted in the turning away of many Hispanic residents who "were not allowed to vote at the precinct where they believed they were assigned." In Miami-Dade, the department's allegations focused on the lack of Creole-speaking poll workers to help Haitian immigrant voters.

Before the 2000 election, Harris's office hired a private company that gave counties lists of voter names they should consider for purging because they might be felons or they might be registered in two or more places. Hodgkiss said that many of the people were incorrectly identified as felons and that many of the allegedly duplicate names were different people. The mistakes, she said, fell disproportionately on minorities whose efforts to vote were rebuffed.

In St. Louis, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has said election officials removed supposedly "inactive voters" from the rolls without adequate notification to the voters and to precinct-level officials.

Tennessee officials said the Justice Department told them they created excessively burdensome procedural requirements for driver's license applicants who also wanted to register to vote.

2002 The Washington Post Company

-- Cherri (whatever@who.cares), May 26, 2002

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