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Chairwoman of civil rights panel criticizes Florida secretary of state

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (CNN) -- Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' description of her role in the November presidential election was "laughable," said the chairwoman of a panel considering whether some of Florida's voters were disenfranchised.

"I thought Katherine Harris' description of her role was laughable. Laughable, ha ha ha," said Mary Frances Berry, the chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, on Friday.

Berry's comments came during the second and final day of a hearing on the matter, after Harris and the head of Florida's Division of Elections, Clay Roberts, had left the room.

Berry sharply criticized Harris for testifying that she was not in charge of day-to-day operations of the elections division, calling it the duty of elected officials to "be able to articulate what their responsibilities are."

Harris: Someone else 'administers those issues'

Harris had earlier testified that her department was too large for her to have intimate knowledge of all its divisions.

"With all due respect, as I have seven divisions and I have the oversight of those seven divisions, I don't manage nor do I have the expertise (in) everything ranging from management of records in our archives to our multi-million inquiries in our division of corporations every day," Harris testified, smiling tensely.

"So, with all due respect I stand accountable and responsible as secretary of state for these issues, but Mr. Roberts is the one who administers those issues every day and there are many, many things I'm only made aware of when there is a necessary decision."

Harris "could have taken the time to brief herself on the responsibilities of the office," Berry told reporters, adding that she felt "sorry" for Roberts because he has "all this responsibility" without the title.

Harris, who served as co-chairwoman of George W. Bush's presidential campaign in Florida, told the eight-member commission that the media disenfranchised voters by calling the results of the election in Florida before the polls had closed.

Harris said the lengthy election -- which hinged on hand counts, recounts, court suits and finally, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court -- had brought attention to the state's election problems and that steps were being taken "to make sure this doesn't happen again."

Attorney general says many complaints received

Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth testified earlier Friday that his office had received numerous complaints from voters, including those who said poll workers refused to give them clean ballots if they had made mistakes on the first one.

"The poll worker says, 'I'm sorry, you cannot get another card,' whereas Florida law says you're allowed to have three cards. That concerns me," Butterworth said. "It concerns me enough from the standpoint that we had a problem."

Florida's 25 electoral votes proved to be pivotal in Bush's victory over Democratic Vice President Al Gore, but the race was so close there it took more than five weeks of recount battles and court challenges before a U.S. Supreme Court ruling halted any further ballot counting and left Gore with little choice but to concede.

The commission has been given evidence alleging that:

  •  Many predominantly black districts had a disproportionate number of faulty voting machines.

  •  Many minority voters were falsely told by poll workers they were not registered to vote.

  •  Excessive police presence at some precincts intimidated some blacks.

  •  Disabled voters were not always given assistance at the polling booth.

The commission will try to determine whether the problems existed, and if so, whether they were deliberate or unintentional.

Berry said the panel hopes to be finished with the investigation into the Florida election before September.

 
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