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latimes.com: Blacks wary of Jeb Bush's election oversight

latimes.com TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Los Angeles Times) -- Though it seemed both a little late and a little early for such a discussion, politicians in Florida were talking Wednesday about ways to overhaul the state's balloting system.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took the first bite at the apple, announcing this week a plan to form a blue-ribbon commission to study election procedure.

But black lawmakers were cynical. They said they do not believe that Bush will do anything concrete about a problem that affects them in a major way. And Wednesday the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators announced that it plans legislation to deal with election problems.

"We believe there are three sides to this issue: A Democratic side, a Republican side and a people-of-color side," said Frederica Wilson, a state representative from Miami who heads the black conference. "And we don't think Jeb Bush is the one to help us."

The black lawmakers cataloged election situations they say impeded minority voters: unhelpful poll workers, confusing ballot directions, precinct changes, roadblocks in front of polling places and an abundance of older voting machines--"Jim Crow-era technology," as Wilson put it--in black neighborhoods. Black lawmakers also have asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate allegations of discrimination against minority voters.

They want an independent panel to investigate--not one appointed by the brother of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. The lawmakers acknowledged that such reform would not straighten out current election tangles and may not have an impact on elections for years.

Jeb Bush said his blue-ribbon panel would "make suggestions on perhaps new means of counting the votes."

But Bush sent a mixed message Wednesday on the concerns raised by black lawmakers.

"If there are disenfranchised voters, there are direct means to determine if that's the case," Bush said. "And if I can play a role in that, I'd be more than happy to do so."

After describing his panel's goals, Bush added: "There will be other means by which to deal with voter disenfranchisement."

The commission, Bush said, will "look at the process of counting votes" and recommend reforms to the Legislature.

It will also examine the "unbridled flexibility" of county elections supervisors to handle vote recounts as they see fit, he said.

"Like we do in many other cases where there's a pressing issue in front of the people, it's appropriate to have people who are thoughtful that can make suggestions, and ultimately the Legislature will make up their minds," he said.

Bush has not named members of the commission. U.S. Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) has declined his invitation to serve.

The governor reached out to the other political party, asking Philip D. Lewis, a former Democratic president of the state Senate, to participate. Lewis agreed, saying that Florida's voting system "obviously needs improvement."

"We need to bring our voting process into the 21st century," he said. "It's obsolete.

"For crying out loud. You can buy a lottery ticket in some remote place like Two Eggs, Fla., and in two or three hours, they'll tell you where they bought the winning ticket. We can do that with an election."

Florida's 67 counties reflect a patchwork of ballot systems--41 use a variety of optical scanner systems, 24 use an assortment of punch-card ballots, one uses mechanical voting machines and another uses paper ballots.

Black lawmakers said that the worst machines get sent to black areas. And they doubt that Jeb Bush is committed to changing that.

"Another Jeb Bush commission? What's that going to really do?" asked Phillip J. Brutus, a Democratic state representative and black conference member from North Miami.

Their distrust of Bush goes back to the governor's aggressive efforts to dismantle affirmative action. Last year, Bush issued an executive order called "One Florida," which replaced affirmative action with guarantees that top-performing students from urban high schools, many of which have predominantly minority enrollments, would get spots at state universities and that black companies would be able to bid on state projects.

The black community was outraged and many black leaders said that One Florida was a sham that reversed decades of progress. Political analysts said the One Florida backlash helped drive black voters to the polls in record numbers to vote against Bush's brother. This election, 900,000 blacks voted, compared to 500,000 in 1996. About 9 out of 10 voted for Democrat Al Gore.

The turnout also helped boost the numbers of blacks in the Legislature. The black conference stands at 22 members, a record, in the wake of last month's election.

On Wednesday, at a rally in front of the Capitol organized by civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and other Democrats, minority voting rights became a theme. The crowd was a colorful weave of union representatives, students, families and working-class people from across the state.

Jackson urged the crowd not to give up on the election. They had come too far, he said, especially black voters.

"We've cut too much sugar cane, we've picked too much cotton, we've died too young," Jackson declared. "Don't give up now. It's dark, I know. But morning is coming."


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Thursday, December 7, 2000

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