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Bitter Words On Florida Vote*

June 28, 2001

Senators Hear Bitter Words on Florida Vote


Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Mary Frances Berry, left, chairwoman of the Commission on Civil Rights, and Abigail Thernstrom, a member, disputed each other on Wednesday at a hearing into the commission's report on the Florida election.

WASHINGTON, June 27 — At an acrimonious hearing that showed how bitter the fight remains over the Florida election last fall, two members of the United States Civil Rights Commission strafed each other today and called each other liars. Even Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state, got into the act.

Despite this hostility, senators of both parties who were listening to the exchanges tried to move beyond the Florida dispute and gave some signs that changes in the election system might yet be on the horizon.

The Senate Rules Committee was the staging ground for a discussion of the commission's report on the Florida balloting and bills that would funnel money to states for new election systems. It provided a platform for two members of the commission — one appointed by Republicans, the other by Democrats — to air their differences over whether some Florida voters were disenfranchised.

The commission voted 6 to 2 this month to approve a report that said that blacks in Florida were at least 10 times more likely than other voters to have had their ballots rejected last Election Day.

One of the dissenting members, Abigail Thernstrom, presented her rebuttal to the report today. Relying on a statistical analysis by John Lott, an economist at Yale Law School, Ms. Thernstrom said that "voter error was the central problem in Florida, not disenfranchisement" and that the committee report was flawed and prejudicial.

"Inflated rhetoric depicting crimes for which there is no evidence undermines public confidence," Ms. Thernstrom said.

She also said the majority had withheld data from her.

Mary Frances Berry, the chairwoman of the commission, hotly denied the accusation as they sat next to each other at the witness table.

"It is an absolute falsehood," Ms. Berry said, noting that Ms. Thernstrom had asked for a disc of data and was told there was no disc but that the information was available on the Internet.

"She was not denied data," Ms. Berry said. "It makes a good story — `I was denied this, I was denied that.' It is a lie. I am 63 years old. I'm too old for playing games."

Ms. Thernstrom responded, "I would never publicly call a commissioner a liar, but I have just heard a lie."

Ms. Berry affirmed the findings of the report and said she was "surprised that people are so exercised" about it. She said it was clear that black voters had higher rates of problems than others, regardless of whether they were intentional.

"If I ran over you at 90 miles an hour and killed you, it doesn't matter whether I intended to or not, I still killed you," Ms. Berry said.

In another tense exchange, Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, took on the credibility of Mr. Lott, Ms. Thernstrom's statistician. Mr. Schumer, a proponent of gun control, first belittled Mr. Lott in passing as the person who had found, in Mr. Schumer's words, "The more guns, the less violence."

In prosecutorial tones, Mr. Schumer then wrung out of Mr. Lott a defeated "yeah" to the question of whether "a greater percentage of black and Hispanic people are turned away than, or don't get to vote, than white people?"

The packed hearing room broke into applause at Mr. Lott's concession, prompting Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, to gavel the room to order, saying, "It's not a rally; it's a hearing."

Ms. Harris, the Florida secretary of state, was not present but sent a statement to the committee in which she accused the commission of "crafting a battle plan for politicians interested in wielding the sword of racial division."

Two election bills the Rules Committee is considering have strong support in the Senate. Both would offer about $2.5 billion to the states over five years to upgrade their election equipment. But one bill, sponsored by Senator Dodd, and supported by all 50 Democrats, would mandate that the states take certain actions. The other, sponsored by Senators Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, and Mr. Schumer and supported by 31 Democrats, 38 Republicans and one independent, has no mandates.

Supporters of both bills indicated that some compromise could pass the Senate later this year. Mr. Schumer said the question of mandates "will work its way through the process in the next several months and in fall we can sit down and have a compromise." And John Feehery, a spokesman for House Republicans, indicated there was "some cause for optimism" in the House as well, later in the year.

Larry Sabato, an election specialist at the University of Virginia who also testified today, said in an interview: "I was pessimistic for a long time, but I've changed now, not entirely because of the Democratic takeover of the Senate, but partly because of that. As we get closer to 2002, an awful lot of senators and House members on both sides of the aisle want to be able to tell African- American voters that they've done something, whatever that something is — money or money plus mandates."

Mr. McConnell said in an interview that he thought the shift in power in the Senate was slowing election reform. Now that Mr. Dodd is chairman of the Rules Committee, he has said he will hold hearings on the matter around the country. Mr. McConnell noted that state and national panels had already held more than 60 hearings and that no more were necessary.

"That may be important to certain parts of their base, but we know enough to move forward," Mr. McConnell said.

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