The US justice department has announced that it will sue three Florida counties for discriminating against minorities in the controversial 2000 presidential elections, it was reported yesterday.
The assistant attorney-general Ralph Boyd told the Senate judiciary committee that the counties, which he did not name, would be sued for abuses including "disparate' treatment" of minority voters and the improper purging of the electoral roll.
He said he expected that the counties would reach a settlement with the justice department in the next two months. Two other counties - in Tennessee and Missouri - are also to be sued.
One of the key issues is Florida's decision to hire a private company to remove from the electoral roll all residents with a criminal record: they are barred from voting for life under state law.
The lists it drew up contained thousands of errors and only a handful of counties went to the trouble of checking them properly.
The errors, minority rights organisations argue, disenfranchised a disproportionate number of black and hispanic voters in Florida, whose governor, Jeb Bush, is the president's brother.
The justice department refused to comment further on its planned lawsuits yesterday. Giving evidence to the Senate on Tuesday, Mr Boyd, a Bush appointee, said his "hope, aspiration and expectation" was that the counties affected would reach an enforceable agreement without going to court that would correct their voting problems before the next elections.
Civil rights activists denounced the justice department action as a "sweetheart deal" which failed to recognise the extent of abuses across the state.
Barbara Arnwine, the head of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups taking Florida to court, described the justice department action as "too little too late".
"When you announce a lawsuit and a settlement in the same day, it looks like a sweetheart deal," Ms Arnwine said. "But the people who were victimised by this need vigorous law enforcement, not sweetheart deals."
A group of civil rights organisations are taking Florida's secretary of state, Katherine Harris, and several other officials to court in August over what they claim was a systematic pattern of negligence and abuse of voting rights.
In December 2000, the Supreme Court stepped in to an intense controversy surrounding recounts in Florida after a virtual dead heat in the voting, and awarded the state to George Bush, a decision which gave him the presidency.