WASHINGTON – The government has authorized three lawsuits against Florida counties and two others in Missouri and Tennessee alleging voting rights violations resulting from the bitterly disputed 2000 presidential election, a Justice Department official said Tuesday.
Authorization of a lawsuit does not mean a suit has been filed. The department hopes, an official told Fox News, that each locality will enter into negotiations that will lead to a settlement before any suits are actually filed.
Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd told the Senate Judiciary Committee that, if necessary, the lawsuits will be filed by the department's civil rights division.
"I have authorized the filing of several lawsuits," said Boyd, who later narrowed the number to five.
The lawsuits will allege different treatment of minority voters, improper purging of voter rolls, "motor voter" registration violations and failure to provide access to disabled voters, said Boyd, who told senators he had authorized the filing of the lawsuits.
Other charges, he said, include failing to allow voters with limited proficiency in English to have assistance at the polls and failing to provide bilingual assistance.
Florida's voting system endured intense scrutiny after the 2000 election, including a recount and protests that went all the way to the Supreme Court before George W. Bush was declared the winner of the state — and the presidency.
Several groups, as well as dozens of black members of Congress, have alleged that black voters were kept from voting in Florida and other states on Election Day and ballots of others were systematically discarded.
Some Hispanic voters in Florida also alleged that they were required to produce two kinds of identification when only one was required and that they were confused by their ballots.
The counties and cities being targeted already are negotiating with the Justice Department on fixing their problems, Boyd said. "My expectation is that by the time we file suit in each of those five instances that we will have agreed-upon, enforceable, settlement agreements or consent decrees," he said.
Miami-Dade County is one of the counties in talks with the Justice Department, county attorney Robert Ginsburg said.
County officials have discussed how they could help Haitian-Americans cast their ballots, he said. "We've been talking to the Justice Department along those lines and working with them to see what would make sense."
He said county officials will meet with Justice lawyers in the next week or two. "I think it's going to be resolved amicably. I think it may have been already, I'm not entirely sure. But they're going to come down and talk to us about that," Ginsburg said.
Donna Brazile, head of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute and campaign manager for Al Gore's 2000 presidential run, called Boyd's announcement a "bittersweet victory."
She said it was good that the "Justice Department was no longer dragging its feet, and that they're going to pursue these counties and these officials who violated the Voting Rights Act and the civil rights of Americans to cast their ballots."
Republicans also cheered the decision. "We hope that the Justice Department is able to do its job and we're glad that they're following up on problems that existed in the 2000 elections," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said. "We think it's important that elections be carried out fairly and with integrity."
Boyd refused to name the cities or counties that will be sued, but he said the lawsuits would be filed within the next two months. "It will be well in advance of the primaries for the November 2002 elections," he said.
The lawsuits in Florida cover particular counties, while the ones in Tennessee and Missouri deal with cities, he said.
"My hope, my aspiration and my expectation is that in each of those we'll reach an enforceable agreement prior to the filing of the lawsuit," Boyd said.
Even so, he indicated the suits still would be filed.
Civil rights groups filed lawsuits over disenfranchised voters after Florida's 2000 presidential election against seven Florida counties: Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange and Volusia.
Broward and Leon have settled and a federal judge has asked the other counties and the civil rights groups to pursue mediation.
In St. Louis, a lawsuit was filed claiming that minorities were having trouble voting, while in Nashville, Tenn., the Justice Department last year investigated claims that names were missing from some voting rosters and polling times and places were changed in Nashville without public notice.
Boyd said the counties and cities are cooperating in the Justice Department's investigation and have acknowledged "certain deficiencies we have identified."
Boyd said the lawsuits are the result of more than 11,000 complaints from voters after the election. He said the complaints were whittled down to 14 active investigations and the five potential lawsuits.
"What we need to make sure is that we take steps quickly enough to ensure that the problems that occurred in the last election don't occur in the next election," said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a possible candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.
Boyd agreed on the importance of moving promptly but said it was more important to proceed carefully and "get it right without regard to the political implications for anyone."
"We're going to follow the investigative trail, the evidence wherever it goes without regard to politics and without regard to whose, if anyone's, ox is being gored," he said.
Congress attempted to push through a bill revamping national elections after the 2000 elections, but the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate deadlocked in February on what changes they would like to make.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.