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Tuesday January 16, 2001

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Federal panel grills Florida secretary of state

By The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Secretary of State Katherine Harris left county supervisors to manage for themselves at the expense of voters, said members of a panel investigating Florida's presidential election.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded a two-day hearing Friday on what some described as voting irregularities in the state that decided the presidency.

Panel members said Harris presided over a "disaster" in which she failed to help county election supervisors.

"The word that comes to mind is that you abandoned them. The fact is that you didn't help the voters, and the voters really have paid the price," panel member Victoria Wilson said.

The results of the Nov. 7 election were contested for more than a month until Republican George W. Bush was awarded Florida's 25 electoral votes, and thus the White House. He beat Al Gore by 537 votes in Florida, but the tally was marred by recounts, court challenges and claims of disenfranchisement.

Some voters have said that blacks and others in Florida were deprived of their right to vote through incorrect purges of voting rolls, broken voting machines and other problems. The Madison County elections chief, Linda Howell, testified Friday that the state had mistakenly listed her as a convicted felon. She was allowed to vote.

Harris, a Republican, deferred most of the questions to Florida's elections director, Clay Roberts, saying she had delegated day-to-day elections operations to him.

That didn't satisfy commissioners.

"I don't know who's responsible - the supervisors are saying you're responsible, you're saying Mr. Roberts is responsible," Wilson said. "I'm on the merry-go-round called denial."

Roberts' claim that Harris was obligated to provide standards for the election but lacked the authority to handle a recount was rejected by Vice-chairman Cruz Reynoso.

"Delegation takes no responsibility off your shoulders," Reynoso told Harris.

Harris said her priority had been to ensure voting systems in the state were up to par.

"We want to make sure the will of every voter is self-evident," she said.

Commissioner Christopher Edley, a Harvard law professor, grew frustrated with the explanations supplied by Harris and other state officials, saying they should simply admit that "yeah, we blew it."

"I don't hear that tone coming through at all, I hear a lot of denial, a lot of excuses and a lot of finger-pointing," he said.

The panel will issue an initial report within 60 days and send its recommendations to Congress and the president this summer.

The commission will hear more public testimony at its next meeting Feb. 16 in Miami.



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