Democrats.com Exclusive: Interview with Mary Frances Berry, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
Patty Oppegard OPPEEONE@aol.com
As soon as the polls opened in Florida on November 7, voters began reporting problems voting. The most widely reported problem was the "butterfly ballot" in Palm Beach, which resulted in 19,000 "overvotes" – ballots with more than one vote for President. But there were many other problems which received far less attention, including some involving even larger numbers of votes – such as the 27,000 "overvotes" in Duval county, especially in black areas of Jacksonville. There were also charges of illegal purges of thousands of voters, failure to process registration forms from black colleges, and many other problems that particularly affected black and hispanic voters.
These critical issues were not addressed during the recount battle. That battle focused on the very narrow question of whether the Gore campaign could request a recount of "undervotes" – votes that were legally cast, but did not register any vote for President when read by the vote counting machines. Problems which prevented thousands of voters from casting any votes at all did not go before the courts.
After a partisan 5-4 majority of the US Supreme Court declared Bush the winner, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights began an investigation of all of the irregularities that were being reported. The Commission traveled to Florida and held two days of hearings in Tallahasee in January and an all-day hearing in Miami on February 16 to document these problems and to interview key witnesses.
On February 28, I sat down with Mary Frances Berry, Chairperson of the Commission. Chair Berry said it was unlikely that the commission would ask for further testimony. The commission has requested and received mountains of subpeoned documents, with more due by March 16th. "We probably have enough information to write the report," says Berry. The only other options she noted were to go to either Jacksonville or Tampa. This decision will be made at the commission's next meeting on March 9.
The March 9 meeting will also discuss the findings of the Commission's staff in its investigation of problems in the other 49 states and the District of Columbia, "We asked our staff to put together a report like that because when we started on the Florida investigation some people said 'well why don't you go to all the other states?'" said Berry. She said "different kinds of problems were reported, but none of them rose to the level of intensity of the different kinds of problems that existed in Florida." However, that assessment could change when the Commission reviews the staff's final report.
In reviewing Florida, Berry said the biggest problem identified by the Commission was not the recount – which was the focus of the court battles – but what Berry called the "No Count – people who were not counted at all. What was the reason why there were people who couldn't vote?" asked Berry.
The "No Count" issues were raised by the Commission with state officials, county officials, poll workers, and the Vice President of Choicepoint DBT - the company that was paid a hefty $4 million fee by Florida's taxpayers to purge Florida's voter rolls of deceased voters and felons.
Berry slammed the failure of Secretary of State Katherine Harris to establish consistent policies for county election officials. "It is clear from the testimony ... that the Secretary of State's office did not give guidance to people about what they were to do and did not monitor people to see what they were doing - and that the county supervisors pretty much did whatever they felt like doing. Some of them did one thing and others did something else."
Berry also charged county officials with violating the fundamental civil rights of voters. "There was this sort of notion in some of them that their job was to keep people from voting... You didn't get any sense that what we're up to here is trying to let people exercise their rights and trying to make sure that they're getting a chance to exercise it," she said.
Berry also criticized the voter purge conducted by Database Technologies. According to company Vice President George Bruder, DBT's contract with the State of Florida did not require any degree of accuracy and his company was not required to verify suspected felons by phone. But a copy of the DBT contract obtained by the Commission and BBC-TV/Guardian Observer reporter Gregory Palast clearly indicated DBT's obligation to verify its list.
According to Berry, Bruder "kept saying no - but I don't know if he knew we had the contract, because I don't know if he even knew we had the letter."
Florida was the only state in the country to "purge" or scrub a voter list using a private firm. Even more questionable is DBTs' ties to the Republican Party, with many of its board members contributing large amounts to the GOP.
According to Berry, "the DBT contract episode just raises all sorts of questions about the state [of Florida's] responsibility. I mean there are red flags flying everywhere on that. There are so many inconsistencies and if the state really did make a contract with somebody for whom to do that little bit of work for over $4 million dollars it would be outrageous... that's just one of the worst episodes that one can imagine. It's just messy - it smells to high heaven," says Berry.
Berry summarized the problems in Florida by saying, "Some very bad things happened to people who were trying to vote - many of whom were registered and didn't get to vote... a lot of those people were disabled, a lot of them were African Americans, quite a few needed language assistance, some were elderly voters and Jewish voters. A lot of them were people who were trying to vote for the first time and the system seemed not be open to solving their problems or figuring out a way to solve their problems."
Berry said election problems were nothing new. "Historians tell us that in almost every election that has existed in America somebody somewhere has either cheated or tried to keep somebody from voting... Corruption has been a feature of American elections... for years. What really strikes people this time is the extent of it. If you didn't have a confluence of events where the governor of the state, the secretary of state, and all these people that are political actors who are in control of the process - and then you have the obvious things happen to people and then you have everything so close and then you have Bush coming on T.V. that night and saying that my brother tells me this is going to be alright - all the media images and all the stuff that was shaped... All of that makes people feel like, you know, there's something wrong here," she said.
Berry's suggested fundamental changes in Florida's laws might be necessary. "Maybe it's not a good idea to have people who are political players be the [people] in charge of the state election," she said.
Berry also recommended greater vigilance by concerned citizens. "It's a good idea to watch your county officials, whatever labels they have on them... It's a good idea to be prepared for dirty tricks and when other people engage in dirty tricks to have some kind of strategy to counteract it," she added.
Berry said it was important to identify the problems in Florida – and to fix them, not just to "move on." "The most important thing ... is that we don't want things to happen that cloud the election process. We would like to fix those things before we move on... so it doesn't happen again. It erodes any mandate that a president has if the election is that problematic and so we need to fix it... When we talk about kids, it erodes their confidence in the system when they see this happening and we don't want that to happen so it calls into question our whole system of democracy and we all think that system of democracy is very dear and that it's necessary so we ought to just look at the problems and fix them and then move on," she said.
Berry also revealed that the Bush administration tried to interfere with the Commission's investigation. "There were some people who requested that we have our political appointees resign - like when they were asking everybody else to do that," Berry said. She pointed to earlier battles with the Reagan administration. "I'd had a lawsuit against Ronald Reagan because the Reagan administration didn't understand that we were an independent agency. We won that lawsuit," she said proudly.
Berry rejected complaints that the Commission was partisan and pro-Democrat. "We're bipartisan and we have people who are from different parties and people who are independent and membership shifts around and presidents get appointments and Congress gets appointments. If we don't have independence then we don't have anything. So my view is that I don't care who's in the White House and I don't care who's in the Congress. I don't care who's anywhere but our duty is to the American people," she said.
Berry said she expects to have an interim report by the end of March and a final report in early June.