DNC Urged to End Fight Over Delegates

03/28/2008 02:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The woman who oversaw the documentation of voter disenfranchisement during the disputed 2000 presidential election has asked the Democratic Party to settle a fight with Florida and Michigan to avoid damage to the party.

Mary Frances Berry, who served as U.S. Commission on Civil Rights chairwoman until 2004, is concerned that there will be a battle at the August convention over the seating of delegates from the two states. The Democratic National Committee stripped the states of their delegates as punishment for moving up their primaries before Feb. 5.

"There will be a challenge at the convention and there will be a big, bloody fight with everybody arguing," she said in an interview. "And at the end of the day you have people going away angry and it's hard to get them together for the general election."

Berry and Roger Wilkins, a George Mason University history professor and former Justice Department official involved in the civil rights movement, sent Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean a letter via e-mail Sunday.

"Public floor fights have served the party badly in the past. They left deep-seated ill-will and preceded Democratic Party defeats in 1968 and 1972," the letter said. "Resolution of this issue is a matter of fairness, justice and practicality."

The DNC declined to comment.

The letter also pointed out that the Democratic Party supported the Help America Vote Act and the Voting Rights Act, both of which "helped ease discontent over disenfranchisement" after the 2000 election, which President Bush won by 537 votes in Florida after five weeks of recounts.

Florida and Michigan are pushing to have the delegates restored, and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has said the delegates should be seated.

Her rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, hasn't made such a push, but it's widely expected that whoever the nominee is will try to seat the delegates for the sake of party unity. Wilkins is an Obama supporter. Berry is not registered with either major party.

Clinton won both states' primaries, but Obama's name wasn't on the Michigan ballot and neither candidate campaigned in either state for the four months leading up to the election after signing pledges to protect the interests of party-approved early voting states.

The DNC's decision to strip the states of all delegates caused critics to say they also stripped millions of Democrats of their right to vote. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Alcee Hastings made that case in a federal lawsuit, which they lost.

"This is an issue about the possible disenfranchisement of people and what makes practical sense and what would be fair," Berry said.

Berry said she isn't recommending how the dispute gets resolved, only that it gets resolved well before the convention.

Berry served on the civil rights commission for 25 years and oversaw the 2001 report that studied the Florida election and found thousands of voters, particularly black voters, were disenfranchised.