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The BBC's Malcolm Brabant in Florida
"The commission's chairwoman clearly regarded Miss Harris as a serial buck passer"
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Katherine Harris defends Florida poll
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Friday, 12 January, 2001, 22:35 GMT
Harris defends Florida poll
Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Governor Jeb Bush
Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush are both testifying
The woman in charge of voting in the American state of Florida, Katherine Harris, has been accused of failing in her duties during the recent dispute over the presidential election.

On Friday, Miss Harris, the Florida Secretary of State, was subjected to intense questioning by a commission investigating allegations by civil rights groups that she manipulated the result in favour of George W Bush.

Black American demonstrator
Some black voters say they were denied their democratic rights
The chair of the US Civil Rights Commission, Mary Frances Berry, described as "laughable" the testimony of Miss Harris, after she dodged questions about her responsibilities.

Ms Harris, a staunch supporter of George W Bush, repeatedly referred the questions to Florida State Election Official Clayton Roberts, saying he carried out the day-to-day running of elections.

She did, however, admit that she remained ultimately accountable.

I heard from supervisors who were desperate... for your help. And the word that comes to mind is that you abandoned them

Commissioned Victoria Wilson to Katherine Harris
One panel member called it a "merry-go-round of denial".

Mr Bush was eventually handed victory in the White House race by the Federal Supreme Court, after weeks of recounts and legal wrangling over the extremely close result in Florida.

But some voters and civil rights groups have argued that blacks and others in the state were systematically and deliberately deprived of their right to vote.

One area that has aroused suspicion is that Miss Harris's department commissioned a Texas-based company with strong Republican links to draw up a list of convicts in Florida who were banned from voting.

Miss Harris admitted that she learned that the company had made mistakes which involved innocent people losing their voting rights.

Asked what action she took, the secretary of state again deferred the question to Mr Roberts.

Disputed county

When questioned on her handling of the recounts of votes in several Florida counties, she said her only priority "was to follow the law".

She cited this as the reason that her office did not extend a deadline to receive a recount from a disputed county.

The BBC's correspondent in Florida, Malcolm Brabant, says Miss Harris's performance was a hugely embarrassing one and will have reinforced the belief of many Democrats that the wrong man won the election.

The alleged irregularities range from faulty voting machines and missing ballot papers, to falsified electoral rolls and intimidation of black voters.

The commission, which began hearing complaints from voters, civil rights organisations and black legal officials on Thursday, is also expected to question other prominent state officials.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the president-elect's brother who appeared before the commission on Thursday, defended himself saying his powers over the state's electoral rules were limited.

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15 Nov 00 | Americas
Profile: King-maker accused of bias
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