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The BBC's Jane Hughes
"The Commission's chairwoman said the number of reported problems was extraordinary and troubling"
 real 28k

Thursday, 11 January, 2001, 19:38 GMT
Florida's black voters protest
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson [centre] leads demonstration
Black Americans remain convinced Gore won but was cheated
The US Civil Rights Commission has begun hearing complaints by black voters in Florida that thousands of them were wrongly disenfranchised in November's presidential election.

I was slingshotted into slavery

Pastor Willie Whiting
The federal hearing is investigating allegations of widespread voting irregularities.

Several witnesses described being intimidated by police roadblocks near polling stations and being asked to produce several identity documents before being allowed to vote. Others spoke of being wrongly listed as convicted criminals.

We know that in elections across the country there will be from time to time instances of irregularities. But these should be the exceptions, not the rule

Commission head Mary Frances Berry,
Civil rights activists say Vice-President Al Gore could have won Florida - and therefore the election - if black people had not been deterred from casting their ballots there.

Meanwhile, three big American computer companies say they are planning to develop new voting technology to avoid the kind of confusion which surrounded the election in Florida.

Jeb Bush testifies

President-elect George W Bush's brother, Jeb, who is Florida's Governor, denied involvement in any alleged irregularities when he gave evidence at the hearing.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush
Jeb Bush denied involvement in any irregularities
As he left the hearing Mr Bush was virtually mobbed by reporters asking whether he had rigged the election to benefit his brother.

Mr Bush told the commission he first became aware of problems in the election the day after the election and that he was anxious to update the state's voting equipment.

Civil rights groups say there were also problems with voting machines and that polling-stations closed early in some black areas.

Extraordinary problems

The BBC's Jane Hughes reports from the Florida state capital Tallahassee, that the federal commission does not have the power to change the presidential election result.

However, it may recommend voting reforms to Congress or pass evidence to the Department of Justice which could result in prosecutions.

The commission's chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, said the number of reported problems was extraordinary and troubling.

"We know that in elections across the country there will be from time to time instances of irregularities. But these should be the exceptions, not the rule," Mrs Berry said.

'Back to slavery'

A church minister told the federal panel that he was wrongly accused of being a criminal and almost lost his vote.

"I was slingshotted into slavery," said Willie Whiting, a 52-year-old pastor at the House of Prayer Church in Tallahassee.

Black American demonstrator
Thousands of Black Floridian voters are suing the state's electoral officials
Pastor Whiting was eventually allowed to vote after his background was double-checked by county election officials.

Police patrol officials have denied accusations that they set up roadblocks to intimidate black voters. They said the roadblocks were a spur-of-the-moment safety measure, not authorised by higher officers, which were not intended to scare anyone away from the polls.

Civil rights groups are suing Florida election officials on behalf of thousands of blacks, saying they were denied the right to vote in the presidential election because of institutionalised racism.

New voting technology

Three computer corporations, Unisys, Dell and Microsoft, are planning electronic systems that tell voters clearly which candidate they are choosing, and then count votes quickly and accurately.

Unisys said on Thursday that its new system would provide "the necessary components to support election reform demands for improved access to the voting process".

The firm said that more than half of America's registered voters currently used outdated voting systems, such as punch-card ballots - which produced the infamous chad debate in Florida.

The technology will also handle voter registration and identification, with the aim of eliminating fraud and queuing.

It will be up to each state, county or municipality to decide whether to buy the system.

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