WASHINGTON – The Justice Department said Tuesday it found no credible evidence that any Florida residents were intentionally denied their right to vote in the state that handed George W. Bush his margin of victory in the 2000 presidential election.
The Justice Department, in a letter to Congress, detailed findings so far in its investigation of possible voting irregularities in three Florida counties: Orange, Miami-Dade and Osceola. The department is considering lawsuits in those counties, saying that even though polling problems were unintentional, they may have deprived some voters of their rights.
In the letter, the department acknowledged polling problems in the three counties may have led to small numbers of voters choosing to leave the polls without casting ballots.
"While the Civil Rights Division discovered evidence of significant confusion and delay in the three counties, there were relatively few voters who actually did not vote because of these problems," wrote Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd.
He said the small number "doesn't reasonably cast any doubt on President Bush's several hundred vote margin of victory in Florida."
"The Civil Rights Division found no credible evidence in our investigations that Floridians were intentionally denied their right to vote during the November 2000 election," Boyd said.
Poll watchers representing the Democratic Party allege that many voters were turned away.
Boyd said that one of the three counties — he did not say which one — may have employed too few bilingual workers, causing delays in providing assistance.
"This may have resulted in at least 26 voters choosing to leave the polls," the chief enforcer of the nation's civil rights laws wrote Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Boyd said that his investigators confirmed that a clerk denied poll watchers permission to help four voters who asked for bilingual assistance. The denial constitutes a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
In another of the other three counties — again, the county was not specified — the investigation found two cases of Haitian-American voters being denied language assistance, Boyd said.
However, the investigation was unable to confirm any of about 15 other alleged instances of voters being denied bilingual assistance.
In the third county, political party poll watchers alleged that approximately 140 voters had difficulty casting ballots, "but it appears that in every instance the voter was referred to the Supervisor of Elections office" for assistance, Boyd wrote. "The Civil Rights Division has no evidence that any of these individuals was unable to cast a ballot."
Also in the third county, the Civil Rights Division's investigation "indicated that a lack of bilingual poll workers resulted in considerable confusion at the polls, and that some poll workers were hostile to Hispanic voters."
Boyd has told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he expected the three counties to negotiate settlements by the time he's ready to file lawsuits.
Boyd said in an earlier letter that Orange County failed to have enough Spanish-speaking poll workers and didn't provide election information in both Spanish and English.
The lawsuit came as "kind of a shock," said Bill Cowles, Orange County's election supervisor.
Since hearing about the lawsuit, county election officials have been working to find more bilingual poll workers, he said.
"We're in good shape to work with the department to come up with a mutual plan to avoid future lawsuits," Cowles said.
The county will place at least one bilingual poll worker in each polling place, Cowles said. After redistricting, areas with larger Spanish-speaking voters will be assigned more translators. The government alleges that Miami-Dade officials didn't do enough to help Haitian-American voters understand the ballot, according to a copy of a proposed agreement between the county and the Justice Department.
David Leahy, Miami-Dade's election supervisor, said he was not surprised that the department could not find enough evidence. Any further lawsuits would be unnecessary, he said.
"We all have the same goal," he said. "We don't need to be hit over the head with a lawsuit."
Osceola County, south of Orlando, is accused of not providing Spanish-speaking voters with election information in their own language. A letter from the Justice Department to Osceola officials also said there were not enough bilingual poll workers.
Donna Bryant, Osceola's elections supervisor, did not immediately return a call for comment.