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Published: Saturday, 5/25/2002

A little Florida sunshine

The 2000 presidential election in Florida was a disgrace to democracy, both for the slipshod manner in which it was conducted and the suspect 537-vote mandate it handed George W. Bush on his way to the White House.

Now, 17 months later, the decision of the U.S. Justice Department to take enforcement action on alleged voting-rights violations in three counties in the Sunshine State is surprising but still welcome.

The Justice Department action, which involves lawsuits in Florida, Tennessee, and Missouri, won't change the outcome but it should provide some redress of grievances over the hotly disputed election.

Detailed reports at the time showed how pro-Bush forces manipulated the result in Florida by denying black voters the right to cast ballots in several areas, by countenancing a confusing system that led to widespread rejection of minority votes, and by throwing up legal roadblocks to recounts. But almost everyone expected the furor that resulted to die away without action under the Bush Administration.

However, the quiet decision to prosecute, which only came to light in questioning of an official during a Senate hearing, indicates that the Justice Department is not pursuing the cases with any particular gusto. But the fact that the issue is being pursued at all is remarkable, coming as it does in the midst of the re-election campaign by Mr. Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Florida has spent millions on revamping its voting and vote-counting machinery, although Governor Bush still seems deaf and blind to what happened in 2000. He told reporters that he was unaware of any cases in which voters were denied access to the ballot.

The governor must have overlooked the documented instances of thousands of voters wrongly stricken from registration lists. Or those who were forced to produce several pieces of identification in order to cast a ballot. Or still others who were snagged by police traffic stops operating in the vicinity of polling places on election day.

Most of the voters who were caught up in this gross abuse of authority were minorities, and it's a safe bet that they haven't forgotten. The question now is whether they will take out their frustration on brother Bush in November.

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