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Official: Florida disenfranchised minority voters

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a rebuke to the State of Florida Friday for alleged voting irregularities on Election Day, though the Commission has not completed its investigation.

Widespread complaints of voting irregularities prompted the commission to hold hearings in Florida earlier this year at which more than 100 people have testified.

And though the commission appears to be weeks from completing its investigation, Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry issued a statement of preliminary findings.

"Voting is the language of our democracy," Berry said. "And, regrettably, when it mattered most on Election Day, real people lost real opportunities to speak truth to power at the ballot box. This must never occur again if we can do anything to stop it."

Berry cited problems she said contributed to the disenfranchisement of many minority and elderly voters. Allocation of resources headed her list.

"Key officials anticipated on Election Day that there would be an increase in levels of voter turnout based upon new voter registration figures, but did not ensure that the precincts in all counties received the resources to meet their needs," Berry said.

Berry's list of problems in Florida on Election Day included:

• At least one unauthorized law enforcement checkpoint was set up resulting in an investigation by state authorities.

• Non-felons were removed from voter checklists based on unreliable information in connection with state-sponsored felony purge policies.

• Old and defective election equipment was found in poor precincts. • Many Haitian-Americans and Puerto Rican voters were not provided language assistance when it was requested.

• Many African-Americans did not cast ballots because they were assigned to polling sites that did not have the resources to confirm eligibility status.

• Voter registration applications were not processed in a timely manner under the National Voter Registration Act.

Two of the commission's eight members said the statement was premature. Abigail Thernstrom said it appeared the commission members had already reached their conclusions, and that the investigation is being conducted to fit that conclusion.

In a letter to Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Berry said his statement of priorities in opening the state's legislative session "did not address the most serious problems that occurred in Florida during the 2000 elections."

Berry wrote that she expected the commission to endorse new hearings in Florida to address what state and local officials have done to correct the alleged voting irregularities.

But the Florida governor interpreted Friday's statement as a vindication of sorts. "Today's statement confirms that, after three days of hearings involving over 100 witnesses, the Civil Rights Commission has yet to be presented with any evidence of intentional discrimination in the conduct of the November 7, 2000 election in Florida," said Gov. Bush in a statement.

The brother of President George W. Bush said he takes seriously "the alleged inefficiencies and bureaucratic errors" noted by the commission. "Many of these matters are addressed in the recommendations of the Select Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology. I am confident that the Legislature will act on the task force's recommendations and that the result will be a world-class election system in Florida."

Bush complained that Friday's statement was drafted without prior discussion by the commission, and that Florida officials were given no opportunity to respond to the issues raised in the statement. "Hopefully, the commission will bring greater fairness and objectivity to the preparation of its final report," he said.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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