The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' report on the Florida election demonstrates how bankrupt the contemporary rhetoric of "civil rights" has become. Friday's report accuses Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris of willfully disenfranchising black voters. Heavy on innuendo and light on evidence, it is the latest salvo in the partisan election campaign of 2000. Indeed, the leaking of the report to the press before it was even shown to the commission's Republican appointees (this from an organization dedicated to fairness and equal treatment) is a tacit admission of that fact.
The commission is chaired by Mary Frances Berry, who was re-appointed to a six-year term by Bill Clinton in 1999. Like the other commissioners, she does not serve at the pleasure of the sitting president, but for a fixed tenure, because — heaven forbid — we would not want the commission to become politicized!
About the most striking and credible charges made in the presidential election, namely widespread voter fraud, the report has little to say. The introduction mentions in passing the allegations of ballots cast by non-eligible voters and discounted military votes. But here the report becomes uncharacteristically modest:
While recognizing that the above factors do raise concerns of voting irregularities, the [c]ommission did not receive many complaints or evidenceâ€¦. Accordingly, this investigation instead examines other factors.
And that is about it. Active military personnel having their ballots rejected? No big deal. Thousands of illegally-registered felons voting? The commission sends the story to solitary confinement. Lack of evidence? Well, it is true no one stepped forward to confess, but to paraphrase University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato, looking for voter fraud is probably a prerequisite to finding it.
Rather, the commission is exercised over the fact that ballots cast in heavily black precincts were disqualified at a disproportionately higher rate. However, as many as 40% of the black votes in Florida were cast by first-time voters, who tend to make more mistakes. Many black Americans were voting for the first time in part because of a project — "Operation Big Vote" — intended to register record numbers of minorities for the 2000 election. The project is managed nationally by the NAACP in cooperation with the Democratic Party. The local coordinator of Operation Big Vote in St. Louis is being investigated for submitting thousands of fraudulent registration cards. This is a serious matter. Bush carried Missouri by less than 100,000 votes. John Ashcroft lost his Senate election by less than 50,000. In the race for governor, the Democratic candidate won by 21,000 votes.
The Miami Herald examined the ballots in 25 of Florida's 67 counties and found 2,000 illegally cast votes. Surely the civil rights of all Floridians, and indeed all Americans, are violated when elections are "marred by illegal voting," to use the Herald's term. But, apart from the two Republican appointees, the reaction of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is a Collective Big Shrug.
President Bush can remove Mary Berry from the commission only for "malfeasance in office." Less drastically, he can try to appoint another commissioner as chairman, or replace the powerful staff director. He should appoint someone of impeccable integrity, who would rise above narrow partisanship. That would be a first step toward reclaiming the good name of civil rights.