Lawsuit charges racism in Florida voting system


Saying blacks were disenfranchised in November by institutionalized racism, civil rights groups sued Florida election officials in a bid to overhaul how elections are run.

The lawsuit, rounding up complaints from the Nov. 7 presidential election, asks a federal judge to get rid of punch-card ballots used in 25 counties, fix the state’s system for purging voter lists and monitor Florida elections for 10 years. There is no effort to overturn the results of the presidential race.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris, state elections chief Clay Roberts and county election supervisors were named in the suit which was filed Wednesday. Roberts said he couldn’t comment because he hasn’t seen the lawsuit.

Groups supporting the lawsuit say blacks were kept from casting ballots by antiquated voting machines, purges of registration lists that discarded rightful voters and breakdowns in registration. Some voters were not given required language assistance, the groups charged.

The groups also said thousands were turned away from Florida polls in November, but offered no figure.

“This thing is so massive,” said Adora Obi Nweze, Florida president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “It’s scary to think about what the numbers could be.”

The plaintiffs include voters and others who say they were turned away from the polls. The groups said some applications from people who signed up at state motor vehicle offices weren’t processed, and about 17,000 letters were sent out informing people they couldn’t vote because they were convicted felons.

Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of President-elect George W. Bush, formed an election reform panel in December to recommend how to improve voting and both houses of the Republican-controlled Legislature are examining the disputed balloting.

In case money isn’t allocated, the groups want a court order requiring the purchase of new voting machines.

Earlier this week, voters filed suit in state court in an attempt to bar use of the “Votomatic” system, which uses punch cards. Critics say the system caused thousands of votes to go uncounted during Florida’s presidential election and may have changed the results in a race that was decided in Bush’s favor by 537 votes.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Georgia officials last week, seeking to throw out the punch-card voting system used in 17 counties. The suit claims Georgia’s system routinely disenfranchises thousands in areas with disproportionately high numbers of black voters.