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Katherine Harris Testifies Before U.S. Civil Rights Commission

Aired January 12, 2001 - 2:57 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Florida's secretary of state, Katherine Harris, now is testifying before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on matters before the commission, including thousands of voters who are listed as convicted felons who were taken off Florida's voting roles, many complaining they were wrongly included in that last. And the commission is also being presented with evidence saying African- American communities had a higher proportion of problematic punch-card machines during the very problematic Florida election results.

Let's listen to what Katherine Harris has to say.

KATHERINE HARRIS, FLORIDA SECRETARY OF STATE: ... services, elections and cultural affairs. In addition, through the statute and with the memorandum of understanding with the governor, the office of secretary of state operates the office of international affairs.

As a Cabinet member, I deal with innumerable issues, including the environment or education issues.

The division of -- the division -- the divisions -- each of the divisions within the Department of State is managed by a division director. The division directors are highly qualified, experienced professional managers, and in many cases are known as the best in the nation.

They're charged with implementing our responsibilities with regard to all matters within their realm. It is my responsibility to oversee the operations of the department, and best management practices suggest the delegation of the day-to-day operations to these division directors.

I meet regularly with them and participate in overarching policy decisions, and one of the documents that we have submitted is the standard delegation of authority letter.

I work to provide leadership to ensure common working principles among the divisions and to demand the highest level of professionalism and ethics among my staff.

With regard to the division of elections, Mr. Clay Roberts was appointed as division director in 1999. Mr. Roberts brings to the division extensive experience in elections law, having served and worked extensively for both the Florida Senate and Florida House of Representatives, with an emphasis in the election law. As with each of the division directors, I have a delegated to Mr. Roberts a high level of authority to operate the Division of Elections and to implement the statutory duties of the Division of Elections and the chief elections officer.

Historically and at present, the day-to-day responsibilities for implementing the duties outlined in the Florida elections code are assumed by the elections division director. Therefore, I will refer you to Mr. Roberts for questions pertaining to the particulars of the implementation of Florida election code.

As to the basic structure of how elections are conducted in Florida, it's underlying foundation are the 67 supervisors of elections: 44 of these supervisors are Democrats, 19 are Republican, three are nonpartisan, and one is a nonpartisan appointed officer.

These are public officials that our constitution and statutes hold accountable for, one, carrying out the registration of qualified electors; two, handling the qualifying process for candidates for county offices and for other local offices with jurisdiction in one county; and three, conducting the elections, including the hiring and training of co-workers, selecting of poll sites, and purchase and maintenance of any state-approved voting system.

The countywide canvassing board of county officials is responsible for reporting the returns of elections in each county. Neither I nor my staff are authorized to direct the conduct of these supervisors of elections. Just as the Florida Cabinet officers are elected independently and answer directly to the residents of Florida, the Supervisors of Elections answer to the residents of each of their respective counties and are elected constitutional officers.

Although by statute I am the chief elections official, please understand the Florida constitution created the election system founded upon local controls. Have the utmost respect in confidence in our supervisors of elections and believe that they, together with my staff and their staff, exercise their duties with integrity and responsiveness to their constituents.

As always, I will continue to perform my official duties within the construct of the constitutional and statutory laws of the state. Within this framework, the Department of State is responsible for the qualifications of candidates for state and federal office and for district offices where the district comprises more than one county, for campaign finance reporting for candidates who qualify with the division and for maintaining a central voter file.

The Elections Canvassing Commission composed of the governor, the secretary of state and the division director of elections certifies the final tallies that are submitted by each of the county canvassing boards for federal and state offices and for any local offices whose jurisdiction exceeds one county.

The Department of State is charged with, among other things, attaining and maintaining uniformity in application, operation and interpretation of the election law. This goal is achieved by the division's authority to issue formal and informal advisory opinions to supervisors of elections and through the opportunities to provide training and educational assistance to our supervisors of elections, other agencies and the public.

In most areas, including those dealing with the interplay among supervisors and the division, the division's authority is best described as ministerial. We attempt to achieve uniformity in the interpretation of the election code but are without authority to direct conduct of county supervisors of elections. Again, let me emphasize that in Florida, the supervisors are independently elected local officials who conduct elections.

As secretary of state, I truly believe that I have the best job in state government. In addition to promoting and supporting state- wide efforts in the areas of cultural affairs, historic preservation, literacy and library services and international relations, our division of elections staff and I welcome the opportunity to make our voting system the model for our nation and for the benefit of all Floridians. No responsibility is greater than insuring the integrity of the election system. Most importantly, I will concentrate on eliminating -- I'll concentrate on the core issue -- voting systems that will make the will of the voter self-evident.

Thank you.

EDWARD HAILES, U.S. CIVIL RIGHTS COMMISSION: Thank you, Ms. Harris. Before we go to Mr. Roberts, Ms. Harris, can you please point to me -- point out the part of the election code of statute that refers to or characterizes the role of the Secretary of State as ministerial as it relates to the county supervisors?

HARRIS: Well, I was specifically referring to our role and there are other issues that are not ministerial. But in case law we are generally referred to as ministerial in the conduct of our duties.

HAILES: And will you, through your counsel, submit to our office within a reasonable time the case law that refers to the duties of the Secretary of State as ministerial?

HARRIS: Yes, we will.

HAILES: OK. Thank you very much. Mr. Roberts?

CLAY ROBERTS, FLORIDA DIRECTOR OF ELECTIONS: Thank you, Mr. Hailes. Last week I met with a Mr. Foreman (ph) from your staff and Ms. Wiggins (ph) from your staff and conducted extensive conversations with them. I'm confident that they have briefed the commission members and I waive an opening statement in order to get on to questions so I can help you all.

HAILES: OK. Thank you very much. And, Ms. Harris, I do want to go to a document that our staff did receive from your office, I believe. A compilation of the election laws of the State of Florida and it has your name and your office. And it's dated August 1999. Is this a current and accurate compilation of the election laws or are there any amendments or revisions that we should know about? ROBERTS: There were some amendments that were passed in the year 2000 legislative session. As you question, if you bring up an area that has been amended, I will make sure to tell you. Also, I will prepare in a supplemental request for documents, copies of all the bills that are amended in the statutes. Also, you might want -- I might need to point out that as far as the statutes that deal with the absentee voter certificate and certain absentee ballot procedures, the statutes that were passed in 1998, which happen to be official statutes, they were passed by the State of Florida, were not granted -- certain portions of them were not granted pre-clearance by the United States Department of Justice. So there are statutes that exist in the statute books that are unenforceable. And as those come up I will point those out, and also, I will make copies of those available to the commission as soon as possible.

HAILES: Thank you very much. I refer your attention, Ms. Harris, to Title Nine of the statutes, specifically, Chapter 97, 97- 012. And I believe you referred to it in your opening statement in which the Secretary of State is the chief election officer of the state. And it is his or her responsibility to, and I'll just name a couple of responsibilities that we see here, obtain and maintain uniformity in the application, operation and interpretation of the election laws. Is it your understanding that that is your responsibility or is it a responsibility that you have attempted to delegate to the division of elections?

HARRIS: It is my understanding that it is the responsibility of the Secretary of State's office and we -- I have delegated authority to each of my division directors as to the specific day to day operations.

HAILES: OK. And have you delegated the duty to provide technical assistance to the Supervisors of Elections on voter education and election personnel and training services?

HARRIS: Indeed I have. We consider those people to be the experts and be able to give far greater technical assistance than could I.

HAILES: OK. And, Mr. Roberts, how many persons do you have on your staff?

ROBERTS: I have a total of 39 people on my staff. Ten of those are in my Bureau Administrative Code who don't have election related duties.

HAILES: OK. And in addition to your position as the head of that division, do you have other responsibilities under state law?

ROBERTS: Being the head of the Division of Elections which consists of the Bureau of Administrative Code, the Bureau of Election Records and the Director's Office are my sole responsibilities. There are some additional statutory duties within the Department of State that are also held within the division. Where the filing office for all the financial disclosure forms that state government officials have to file yearly. We are the filing office for all gift disclosure forms that state officials have to file either quarterly or when they receive certain gifts. We are the office that maintains all the official acts of the Governor and Cabinet. They are certified and held in our files. And we are the general filing office for a wide variety of state government official acts.

HAILES: OK. And under chapter 106-22, under "The Duties of the Division of Elections" -- and I go to Section 11 -- it appears that your division has the duty to conduct preliminary investigations into any irregularities or fraud involving voter registration or voting and report its findings to the state attorney for the judicial circuit in which the alleged violation occurred for prosecution where warranted. And that is your duty? It's not a duty that you have delegated to anyone?

ROBERTS: Yes, Mr. Hailes, that is a duty within the Department or within the Division of Elections. And how we execute that duty is -- the Division of Elections has attorneys on staff but we do not have investigative personnel on staff. So when we receive a complaint of voter fraud or irregularities, we -- if it's telephonic, we send a complaint to the person so complaining so we can get information to find out more about what they're alleging. We look at the complaint to see if it's a complaint regarding an irregularity or fraud.

Very often, on our voter fraud hotline, people call in with campaign finance complaints and then we send them a form. Although we're not responsible for enforcing the campaign finance laws, we send them the correct form and we get them in touch with the Commission on Elections who enforces those laws.

We do a preliminary review of the complaints and we have a contract with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement by which they provide investigative support for us to follow up on those complaints. They go out and interview witnesses and do investigations. And when it comes back to our office, if there is any evidence to lead us to believe that would be a violation of Florida statutes regarding voter fraud or any violation of a federal statute, we would refer that to the appropriate prosecutorial agency.

HAILES: So you only conduct investigations that are based on complaints that are received by your division? I'm just reading the Section and it says, "Conduct preliminary investigations into any irregularities." There's no reference at all to responding to or receiving complaints. Are you able to respond to irregularities that you become aware -- that your division -- that the state -- the Secretary of State becomes aware of with regard to the election?

ROBERTS: Well, how would -- we would become aware of irregularities through people complaining of them.

HAILES: That's the only circumstance under which you understand your responsibility to respond to?

ROBERTS: In the past that has been our interpretation of what is required for us to move forward.

HAILES: Let me ask you this question, Ms. Harris. You are a member of the Cabinet of the governor in an independent role. Is there a liaison person that -- that you speak to with regard to your official functions as those functions relate to the governor?

HARRIS: Yes, there is. As you may know, Florida has a unique set of laws called our "Sunshine Laws." And, as Cabinet officials, we don't talk with each other directly about any issue which may involve an upcoming vote. So, my chief Cabinet officer -- my chief Cabinet aide -- Lily Goodson (ph), works directly with the chief Cabinet aide of the governor.

HAILES: And the name of that person?

HARRIS: Lily Goodson is my chief Cabinet aide.


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Katherine Harris, the secretary of state of the state of Florida, you no doubt remember her well from the Presidential election. She is appearing before a hearing in Florida. This is a two-day hearing. She's talking about the responsibilities of her office. And she's testifying about voting irregularities before this commission, which is the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. This commission has patina and investigative powers but it cannot apply specific remedies. It will report to Congress and the President this summer and make recommendations.

Among the things that this commission is looking at -- reports that thousands of voters listed as convicted felons were taken off Florida's voting rolls. Many complained they were wrongly included on that list. And the commission has also been presented with evidence saying that African Americans were denied the right to vote in certain precincts. And that there were particular problems in African American communities. So these are things that they will be exploring during this hearing.

We have CNN's Gary Tuchman there. He will report on the highlights coming up at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Today during "CNN TODAY."

Also want to let you know that Katherine Harris will be on "LARRY KING LIVE" next week -- next Tuesday -- and that's 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

I'm Natalie Allen at CNN Center.



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