Taking the stand and passing the buck

Florida's controversial Secretary of State Katherine Harris defends her actions during the election before a skeptical Civil Rights Commission.

Published January 13, 2001 1:58AM (EST)

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris testified under oath Friday at a public hearing in Tallahassee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. In her sometimes-tense appearance before the commission, which is looking into possible voting irregularities in Florida, Harris said that no citizens were denied the right to vote in the controversial Nov. 7 election, but acknowledged that the system needed reform. Her testimony -- which included a frequent disavowal of responsibility for various aspects of the election -- led to some pointed questions from the commissioners, most of whom appeared highly skeptical of Harris' responses.

Harris' testimony marked the final session in two days of Tallahassee public hearings held by the USHRC. The eight-member commission will issue a preliminary report in 60 days and then submit its final findings to Congress and President-elect George W. Bush for consideration by summer.

On Thursday, the panel heard testimony from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who disavowed responsibility for election irregularities, stating that minding the election was the responsibility of the secretary of state, an independently elected member of the governor's executive cabinet. On Friday, Harris in her turn passed the buck, saying she delegated "day-to-day" responsibilities for running elections and guarding against irregularities on Election Day to Clay Roberts, the head of the state's Division of Elections. She also stated that county elections commissions were responsible for replacing inadequate equipment and conducting voter education initiatives.

The trend of downward finger pointing among senior state officials was ridiculed by USHRC commissioner Victoria Wilson, who seemed on the verge of spitting nails at Harris. Wilson described the shirking of responsibility as a "trickle down effect."

Harris, whom Democrats bitterly attacked for conflict of interest after she issued several key rulings that helped the GOP candidate, whose Florida presidential campaign she co-chaired, said at the outset that she wouldn't answer questions about particular allegations of election improprieties. As secretary of state, Harris said, she oversaw operations of seven different departments, with each division managed by a division director, like Roberts. "I will refer you to Mr. Roberts for particulars on implementation of election code," Harris said to the irritation of the commissioners, who obviously felt the secretary of state was trying to shirk her responsibilities.

Commissioner Cruz Reynoso pointedly asked Harris why she had placed such an emphasis on delegation of her responsibility as secretary of state. "You're the one who's responsible," he said. "It's your responsibility to provide standards."

As if on cue, Harris delegated the question to Roberts, who was seated next to her. "Nowhere in the statutes does it provide the Secretary of State with the ability to apply additional rules. We cannot engage in rulemaking without the authority to make the rule. We were without authority," he said. Reynoso retorted that there must be an incongruity in the law, and later charged, "I am unpersuaded by your testimony."

Cruz also asked Harris about one of her most controversial decisions -- why she didn't accept hand recount results from Palm Beach County, which came two hours after the 5 p.m. deadline on Nov. 26. "I'm glad you asked that question," Harris said, before explaining that she was simply following the law, as interpreted by the state Supreme Court, which held that the counties submit their revised tallies to the secretary of state's office by 5 p.m. on Sunday, if the office was open, and Monday if it was not. Harris acknowledged the ambiguous deadline language set forth by the court, but said that since she opened the office during the weekend, that the Sunday deadline had to be enforced.

Many of the questions posited by the commission seemed pointed at determining whether or not recent downsizing at the department -- which Harris said was implemented prior to her election -- was partially responsible for the alleged Election Day irregularities. The commission pointed out that during the past several years, the staff of the Division of Elections had been downsized from over 70 to just under 40 full-time employees.

In particular, the commission asked if Harris had taken steps to ramp up voter education initiatives after it became apparent to the department's officials that voter registration was way up, and that there would be more first-time voters than usual. Were steps taken to ensure these new voters would be able to properly cast their ballots?

Asked by one commissioner if she ever expressed the need for a bigger budget directly with Gov. Bush, Harris implied that it would be improper for her to do so, saying, "Florida has Sunshine Laws. As cabinet officials, we don't talk together about any issue that might involve an upcoming vote." Instead, she said, the chief assistants between the divisions served as liaisons to the governor's office; she would submit records of conversations between the two assistants and e-mail their exchanges to the commission. She also denied (as Bush had the previous day) having any coversations with Jeb Bush about an increase in anticipated voter turnout on election day.

The commission also grilled Harris about the state's controversial contract, first reported in Salon, with DBT Online, a subsidiary of ChoicePoint, Inc., to develop a master list of convicted felons and deceased voters to be purged from voter-eligibility rolls. Harris confirmed that she was aware of concerns about the legitimacy of that list, which contained numerous errors that resulted in thousands of voters, a disproportionate number of them black (and Democrats), being wrongfully disenfranchised. But she then referred all questions relating to the arrangement to Division of Elections director Roberts.

When commissioner Edward Hailes Jr. raised questions about the state's relationship with DBT Online, which critics have described as a "voter-cleansing" program, Roberts couldn't answer quickly enough to satisfy Hailes. Hailes asked what actions Roberts had taken after learning about the problems with the list. He then addressed the question to Harris herself, asking when she first learned of the problems. "Our division director made me aware," Harris said. "I'm not aware of the specific day." After a few more dead-end questions, Hailes said, "I'm not going to pursue this line of questioning at this point." He then said that the commission would follow up on the matter after the public hearings were completed.

On the same subject, commissioner Cruz asked if the state was considering instituting so-called "provisional voting" for persons listed on the state's master vote file as felons or deceased. This practice would enable a person so listed to vote, but that vote would be invalidated if the voter's eligibility could not later be confirmed. Proponents of the practice argue that it would prevent voters from being turned away at polling booths because they were erroneously listed as convicted felons on the state's master voter file, a serious problem that plagued Florida's November election.

Roberts said that if the state continues to contract with a private company to provide the felon and deceased voter purge lists, proposals may be introduced in the state's Legislature calling for the state to consider adopting a provisional voting measure. Florida's contract with ChoicePoint was controversial because the firm has close ties with Republicans. (Florida is the only state which contracts a private company to purge its voter rolls.)

Asked by the commission what her office would do to make sure the problems that plagued Florida's election would not reoccur, Harris said the state would seek to improve its voting systems. "We want to make sure that the will of the voter is self-evident. We think that through the appropriate voting systems and accuracy that they will be counted as well," she said.

Roberts echoed Harris' words, and also acknowledged the need for a uniform standard for determining how to count undervotes. The lack of such a standard left a cloud of probably permanent suspicion over Florida's election, and has led independent media organizations to conduct their own manual count of undercounted votes. "That's our top priority, to have voting systems that are easier... And to provide a system by which the voter can make their intent known and clear and every single vote count, no matter how many times you do a recount, you'd get the same number," Roberts said. "We also need statutory measures to help determine standards for intent of the voter."

Despite these statements, few on the commission seemed to buy the testimony provided by Harris or Roberts. "I'm on a merry-go-round of denials," commissioner Wilson blurted out toward the end of Harris' testimony.

Commissioner Elsie Meeks expressed concern that Harris emphasized fixing broken machines and antiquated balloting equipment as the best means for reforming Florida's flawed election system. "I find it disturbing that you said the best way to fix this is mechanical," Meeks said. She criticized the secretary of state for not doing more to promote voter education initiatives and voter registration in the state. "If people can't get to the machines, their votes are being deprived," she said.

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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