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Race and the Florida vote

Civil rights organizations pushed a major voter registration drive of minority voters this year, especially in pivotal states such as Florida. Thousands of new voters, many of them students, were lured to the polls with the promise of participating in the American system and helping to elect the nation's next president. Unfortunately, many of these voters were denied a chance to cast their ballots.

Some were told that they were not registered. Others finally voted only to learn that many ballots had been discarded because of faulty machines or confusing instructions. Now that the election is over, the nation's lawmakers, civil rights experts and elections officials must remedy a flawed system that made it harder for members of minorities than for whites to cast valid votes, most notably in Florida.

The microscopic examination of Florida's voting in this close election has unearthed abuses that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. A higher percentage of black voters were required to use the cheaper, less efficient punch-card system to register their choices, while whites tended to vote in more affluent districts with more reliable optical scanning systems.

Equally distressing, computers were not available in many black precincts in Florida to help clear up problems when voters discovered that their names were missing from the registration lists at the polling places. Precinct workers were thus forced to telephone the central elections offices for verification and because the lines were almost constantly busy, many voters simply gave up.

It is hard to tell at this stage whether the difficulties encountered by members of minorities were severe enough to trigger relief from the Voting Rights Act, which outlaws any practice or procedure that diminishes the opportunity of minority citizens to vote. Nevertheless, since Election Day, Florida officials, civil rights leaders and some journalists have been swamped with complaints from minority voters. Some black leaders, though troubled by this election, say their more basic concern is making minority voters feel welcome in Florida at future elections.

Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president, said recently that his organization would file suit soon along with other civil rights groups "to determine what happened during this election and take steps to prevent a reoccurrence in the next election."

Shortly after the vote, Mfume delivered to the Justice Department a 300-page report documenting what he called "voting fraud, intimidation and irregularities," many of them in Florida.

The Voting Rights Act, enacted originally to prohibit literacy tests and other efforts to keep blacks from the polls, does not require evidence of conspiracy to keep minority voters away from the polls. Instead, the law was designed to protect minority voters whenever they confront more difficulties than whites in trying to cast their ballots.

Although Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida has called for a bipartisan commission to investigate a wide variety of problems with Florida's election procedures, outside authorities and federal courts must continue to examine the state's voting failures. The Justice Department, responding to complaints by minorities, has sent investigators to Florida to determine whether there were violations of the voting rights law, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold hearings in early January to question Florida officials and voters.

By delaying their efforts and lawsuits until after a president-elect was chosen, the NAACP and civil rights leaders have made it clear that their struggle is not about electing George W. Bush or Al Gore. It is about electoral fairness. Minority voters in Florida or any other state must not be deprived, ever again, of citizens' most basic right.