Senators Question Justice Actions on Florida Election Inquiries

Senate Democrats want to know why the Justice Department didn't file lawsuits in nine cases it was investigating for possible voting rights violations.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and four other Democrats sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft asking him to detail the investigations, including the jurisdictions involved, the violations alleged and the reasons for closing the nine cases.

The Justice Department filed five lawsuits last week in response to complaints about violations in the 2000 presidential election: one in Missouri, one in Tennessee and three in Florida counties. The Justice Department received 11,000 complaints regarding the 2000 election, primarily focusing on access to polling stations, denial of registration records, poor voting equipment, and language barriers.

Senate aides said the authors of the Ashcroft letter, including Democrats Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Bill Nelson and Bob Graham of Florida, and John Edwards of North Carolina, want to know how many of the cases that were under active investigation were in Florida. Disputes over the election outcome and numerous claims of voting rights violations in Florida threw the election between George Bush and Al Gore into the Supreme Court.

"I am deeply concerned that the department apparently has chosen not to address the critical issues in Florida: the widespread purges of voters and the poor voting equipment that heavily affected African-American communities," Edwards said in a statement.

There was no immediate response from the Justice Department to the letter.

Democratic lawmakers are also concerned about future election abuses and have suggested that the Bush administration, the president's brother Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the Republican-led Florida Legislature deliberately excluded state Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth from involvement in the submission of a congressional redistricting plan, that is required by the 1965 Voting Rights Act to be reviewed by the Justice Department.

"The actions of the Florida Legislature and the governor raise serious concerns about the legitimacy and potential legality of the reapportionment plan," the senators wrote.

Butterworth has separately submitted a redistricting plan to a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia District Court, and wants the Justice Department to halt its review.

The Democratic senators questioned whether Justice attorneys, who said they hope to decide on the merits of the redistricting plan as early as next week, have the authority to make that decision while there is a court challenge to the plan.

Separately, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe also criticized the scope of the lawsuits and the Justice Department's moving forward on the Florida redistricting plan while the courts were dealing with the plan's legality. "Overall, the Justice Department's efforts on voting rights are too little, too late," McAuliffe said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.