A Disgraceful Silence Prevails In Florida

Public fails to receive ample notice of hearings on new election standards; Neas blasts state officials for ‘business-as-usual approach’

The director of Florida’s Division of Elections recently voiced surprise that proposed new standards for counting ballots in the Sunshine State "are turning out to be a lot less controversial than we thought they would be." But the relatively uneventful public hearings on the proposed new standards—only four people showed up at the first of six hearings in Miami on Oct. 29—is likely due to the fact that Florida voters have received little or no information about the public hearings.

People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF) expressed its outrage over the Division of Elections’ failure to notify the public of the hearings in a timely fashion. PFAWF urged the state Board of Elections to better publicize the remaining hearings and to consider holding additional hearings to ensure that Floridians have ample opportunity to hear about and respond to the proposed new standards. The proposed changes are designed to help clarify how election officials should interpret voters’ intent, an issue that was at the center of the Florida presidential vote controversy last fall. PFAWF has more than 34,000 members and activists in Florida.

"We are not passing judgment on the new standards that have been proposed," explained PFAWF President Ralph G. Neas, "but it’s a sham to claim you’ve received public input when only four people in a city the size of Miami show up. After the debacle last November that brought dishonor to Florida and its residents, state election officials should have gone all-out to inform the public. Instead, they seem to be taking a business-as-usual approach."

Florida State Senator Kendrick Meek has confirmed that he was not informed in advance of the Oct. 29 hearing in Miami, which drew only four people, despite the fact that the hearing was being held in Meek’s hometown. After learning of the hearing Oct. 30 from a small newspaper article in the Miami Herald, PFAWF officials in Florida spoke with a Division of Elections employee, who stated that officials announced the hearings in an "administrative procedure document," but did not contact the news media.

The Friday before these hearings began, a representative of Arrive With Five—a nonpartisan voter participation project of PFAWF—visited the division’s headquarters. There was no notice of the hearings posted within the area that is accessible to the public. Even as late as this morning, Nov. 2, the home page of the Division of Election’s Web site (http://election.dos.state.fl.us/) made absolutely no mention of upcoming hearings.

"Here we are, 12 months after one of the saddest episodes in Florida’s history, and state election officials are still asleep at the switch. They have a duty to alert the public about an issue as important as this, and they haven’t fulfilled that duty," said Sharon Lettman-Pacheco, the Tallahassee-based state coordinator of Arrive With Five.

In an Oct. 30 Washington Post article, Division of Elections Director Clay Roberts said of the public hearings: "They are turning out to be a lot less controversial than we thought they would be." The article noted that the purpose of the hearings was to enable state officials to "change [the proposed standards] in response to public comment." The new standards are supposed to take effect in January. Future public hearings on the Division’s proposed new standards are scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 7 in Jacksonville; Thursday, Nov. 8 in Tampa; and Thursday, Nov. 15 in West Palm Beach.

"Holding public hearings without providing adequate notice to the public makes no sense at all," said Meek. "Haven’t Katherine Harris and other state officials learned anything from the disgraceful events of last November?"

In January 2001, PFAWF joined other organizations in suing the Florida Secretary of State, the state’s Division of Elections director and other defendants on behalf of the Florida NAACP and individual African-American and Haitian-American voters. The class-action lawsuit challenges election practices and policies that disenfranchised thousands of Floridians during the November 2000 elections.

Among other remedies, this lawsuit (NAACP v. Katherine Harris) seeks the adoption of uniform and non-discriminatory voting policies in Florida by the November 2002 elections. The case was filed in federal court in the Southern District of Florida and was assigned to Judge Alan S. Gold. In August, the court denied motions to delay or dismiss part of the case.

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