Ohio Is Set to Reckon With Outstanding Ballots
Experts and Kerry campaign officials agree provisional and overseas absentee votes won't change outcome, but the count draws scrutiny.
By Ralph Vartabedian and Henry Weinstein, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers 09 November 2004
Ohio election officials said Monday that they would begin this week the final count of 155,428 provisional ballots and an unknown number of overseas absentee ballots that were cast in the presidential election.
According to the preliminary tally, which included all domestic absentee ballots, Sen. John F. Kerry lost Ohio by 136,483 votes, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell said.
Attorneys for the Kerry campaign said Monday that they did not believe the outcome of the Ohio vote ? which gave President Bush the electoral votes needed to win ? could possibly change; they have discouraged speculation that voting irregularities caused Kerry's loss.
Nonetheless, the Ohio count is attracting scrutiny by groups who say the election was tainted and that voting equipment in Ohio, Florida, South Carolina and elsewhere was defective. On Friday, three congressional Democrats asked for a federal investigation.
Since the election, Internet sites and political blogs have buzzed with speculation that the vote was manipulated. "Evidence mounts that the vote may have been hacked," reads the title of one widely circulated Web offering.
Voting machine failures did occur, and long lines in heavily Democratic precincts discouraged some potential voters. Still, a broad range of experts said that the final vote counts in Ohio and other states could not possibly change the outcome.
Among those was Cleveland attorney Mark Griffin, who played a key role in the Kerry campaign's voter protection efforts in that area.
After meeting Monday with Michael Vu, head of the Board of Elections in Ohio's Cuyahoga County, Griffin said: "This is really not about changing the outcome?. It is about making sure every vote counts, particularly people who waited in line three hours."
The 2004 Ohio vote was not nearly as close as the disputed Florida results in 2000.
If all provisional votes are deemed valid, Kerry would need 88% of them to overcome Bush's margin of victory in Ohio, assuming the remaining overseas absentee ballots were split evenly.
But many provisional ballots will probably be tossed out. In past elections, about 10% were judged as not coming from legitimately registered voters. What's more, Blackwell ruled before the election that provisional ballots had to be cast in the correct precinct, and that any cast at the wrong polling place would not be counted.
If 10% of the provisional ballots were rejected, Kerry would need to get 97.6% of those remaining to overcome Bush's lead.
"There are a lot of conspiracy theory folks out there thinking that ? with a machine problem here and a long-line problem there and the provisional ballots ? the result is in doubt," said Edward J. Foley, a professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. "I have seen nothing to indicate that the result is in doubt."
But, Foley said, the election revealed problems that needed to be remedied.
Counting of the provisional ballots is expected to begin Saturday, although state law allows counties to delay the canvass until Nov. 18, said James Lee, Secretary of State spokesman. Ohio, however, faces a Dec. 7 deadline to finish this process so that its electors can cast their electoral college votes Dec. 13.
Under state law, each county will examine its provisional ballots, which are in sealed envelopes. Before opening the envelopes, a team of elections officials ? split evenly between declared Democrats and Republicans ? will decide whether the voter who cast the ballot was registered by the early October deadline and voted in the correct precinct.
After all provisional ballots have been allowed or rejected, the envelopes will be opened, Lee said. "Our system is designed to be bipartisan in every aspect," he said.
But irregularities and problems have cropped up nonetheless.
On Friday, officials in Franklin County ? which includes state capital Columbus ? acknowledged that they may have improperly counted votes for Bush because of a touch-screen voting system malfunction. A precinct in the county reported that a 4,000-vote margin won by Bush appeared to exceed the number of registered voters.
The touch-screen system in Franklin County is among the oldest and least reliable electronic voting machines in use, said David Dill, a Stanford University computer expert.
Asked how an electronic voting machine could run up nearly 4,000 extra votes, Dill said a variety of factors, including an internal misalignment or static electricity, could cause such an error.
"The point is that these machines are nowhere near reliable enough to depend on," Dill said.
Based on reports that Dill's organization ? Verified Voting.org ? has received, one precinct in Youngstown, Ohio, recorded a negative 25 million votes, which was discarded from official results. And it was widely reported after Nov. 2 that a North Carolina precinct lost 4,000 votes when a recording device used up all its memory but voters continued to cast ballots on the machine.