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Jeb Bush testifies before a federal civil rights hearing on election irregularities in Florida.

Published January 12, 2001 1:14PM (EST)

In its first hearing on irregularities in the Florida election, the United States Civil Rights Commission lobbed softballs at Florida Gov. Jeb Bush Thursday. "We're delighted to have you here," the governor said. "Welcome to Tallahassee."

But the dollop of Southern hospitality was a little hard to swallow coming from a man who's been under fire for his state's wildly disparate voting equipment and possible civil rights violations in November's election. But Thursday, Bush, who was conspicuously invisible during the election overtime, had the opportunity to be more open. In his brief and relatively uneventful appearance before the commission, Bush came off as highly articulate, joking easily with the commission members.

And the commission seemed taken by his charm. At one point in the hearing, after Bush described himself as the president-elect's brother, he quipped, "I don't look much like him, I look like my mother." One commissioner made a crack about whether Bush had been invited home for Thanksgiving, eliciting laughter in the conference room.

In between wisecracks, the governor's interlocutors, led by commission head Mary Frances Berry, essentially asked several variations of the same question: Did he or didn't he speak to Secretary of State Katherine Harris about the election procedures before or during Election Night?

"No," he said, before adding a little wiggle room for himself with "I don't recall having any conversations." Harris served with Bush as one of six co-chairmen on the presidential campaign of his brother, George W. Bush.

What Bush didn't say, however, was that he did give Harris a morning-after wakeup call. In an interview Thursday with ABC News' Diane Sawyer, Harris said she was roused from bed the day after the election with a telephone call from the Florida governor, who, she said, "wanted to know what prompted the automatic recount." In the interview, Harris denied discussing anything other than the "legal process."

Bush said he took a hands-off approach to the election because that responsibility falls squarely under the jurisdiction of the secretary of state. But Bush stated that there is one area he has been actively investigating: the concern that voters may have been turned away from the polls because they were incorrectly identified as felons in the state's master voter file. Salon first published allegations that some Florida voters may have been disenfranchised because of inaccuracies on lists of ineligible voters generated by ChoicePoint and its subsidiary, DBT Online. State law places the obligation for vetting the list on the counties, but the central voter file was so riddled with errors that a handful of supervisors refused to use it. Vetting it, they suggested, would be a Sisyphean endeavor. But other counties are alleged to have taken the list at face value, erroneously purging voters.

Bush said he asked for a briefing "on the alleged concern that felons were voting and that nonfelons were not allowed to vote because they were allegedly felons." Florida passed a law cracking down on illegal voting two years ago after the uncovering of massive fraud in the Miami mayoral election, in which ballots were cast by deceased voters. Bush said he met with Clay Roberts, the state's director of elections, and the director of the Florida Office of Law Enforcement to see how the law was carried out. "I was concerned that ... the process did not work," he told the commission.

"It was clear based on press reports that this was a problem. Supervisors of elections, according to the press reports, did not accept the lists that were vetted by Florida law enforcement and this entity that was contracted with by the Department of State," Bush said.

Indeed, as Salon reported in its Dec. 4 article, use of the state's central voter file varied from county to county. County election supervisors contacted by Salon criticized the list for its inaccuracies, and some said they refused to use it altogether, in apparent violation of state law. Carol Griffin, supervisor of elections for Washington County, told Salon, "It hasn't been accurate in the past, so we had no reason to suspect it was accurate this year."

The commissioners also asked if Bush had appointed a special officer to investigate the sundry charges, which run from intimidation of black voters to increased police presence in black neighborhoods that could have kept voters from the polls. Bush said he hadn't, and that he has not taken an active role in investigating allegations of election irregularities because the state's attorney general and the commission have already undertaken investigations. He also said he does not plan on ordering an investigation of his own.

Bush said he will take legislative steps to correct some of the election-related problems that arose on Nov. 7 and during the legal battle in the weeks that followed. "From my perspective, my duty was to look to the future and see what flaws could be rectified," he said.

Earlier, Bush appointed a 21-member task force to explore November's election problems and issue policy corrective suggestions to him by March. The governor did not indicate whether the state would continue contracting with a private corporation to manage its voter cleansing lists.

Secretary of State Harris is expected to testify before the commission on Friday.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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