President Bush, who has said he wants to increase black support for Republican candidates, refused yesterday to say whether he approves of a North Carolina Republican Party "ballot security" program that warned voters in heavily black precincts that they faced fines and jail terms if they cast ballots at the wrong location.

"I'm sorry, I can't help you on the details of a race for the U.S. Senate or a governor's race or a congressional race," Bush said at a morning news conference. "I just have not gone into that." Asked if he knew about the controversy that emerged in the final days of the bitter Senate contest between Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.) and Democrat Harvey Gantt, who is black, Bush said:

"Yeah, just what I've read in the papers. I read a lot of charges and countercharges, and I've heard some people say it's bad and I've heard others say it's not. . . . It depends on how it is done. And I just don't know enough about what you're trying to get me into to get into that."

In the final week of the Helms-Gantt campaign, Jack Hawke, chairman of the North Carolina GOP, ordered a mailing of 150,000 postcards to voters that warned: "When you enter the voting enclosure, you will be asked to state your name, residence and period of residence in that precinct. You must have lived in that precinct for at least the previous 30 days or you will not be allowed to vote. It is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in jail, to knowingly give false information about your name, residence or period of residence to an election official."

The mailing was sent to "high performance" Democratic precincts, which in North Carolina often means precincts with high percentages of black voters. Hawke contended that the postcards were sent to voters who had recently moved, but he acknowledged that an indeterminate number were sent to voters -- many of them black -- who had not moved in years.

The Democratic National Committee sought a federal court ruling that the mailing violated a consent degree signed by officials of the Republican National Committee in 1987 and 1982 declaring that the RNC would "refrain from undertaking any ballot security activities in polling places or election districts where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor in the decision." The 1987 case grew out of an attempt by Republicans to target a ballot security program against "high performance" Democratic precincts in Louisiana.

Federal Judge Dickinson Debevoise ruled Monday that the North Carolina ballot security program amounted to "tactics . . . of the kind which were forbidden by the {1982 and 1987} consent decree and settlement agreement," but that the consent decree applied only to the RNC and does "not purport to govern the activities of the North Carolina" GOP. Consequently, he ruled, the DNC had failed to "establish that the RNC is involved directly or indirectly with activities taking place in North Carolina."

One key figure whose activities overlapped both the North Carolina campaign and the RNC is Charles Black, who is chief RNC spokesman and who served as a media adviser to the Helms campaign. Asked just before the election whether he had any obligation as a senior RNC official to examine the legality and legitimacy of the North Carolina ballot security program, Black said:

"I don't want to judge it either way. . . . It's just not my role. I just can't do everything. It's not my job, I'm a volunteer trying to fill in for {RNC Chairman} Lee Atwater," who is seriously ill.

Hawke said it was his recollection that the ballot security program was cleared by national party lawyers, most likely Ben Ginsberg, RNC chief counsel. "I haven't touched a North Carolina ballot security program with a 10-foot pole," Ginsberg said. Ginsberg said he had read the consent decree in detail, "which is why I am not touching anything."