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Still counting
Friday, December 17, 2004
Diane Suchetka
Cleveland Plain Dealer Reporter

The election is over and the Electoral College has officially chosen George W. Bush as America's president, but doubters are still scrutinizing nearly every aspect of the controversial vote.

Dozens of them went to the offices of Cuyahoga County's Board of Elections Thursday to try to find the flaws for themselves as witnesses in Ohio's recount. 
 Losing candidates from the Libertarian and Green parties - who have requested a presidential recount across Ohio - don't expect it to result in a new president.

What they're doing, they say, is making sure every vote cast in America counts.

At least on Thursday, in Cuyahoga County, it was not exciting work.

It took place at 20 folding tables in two long rows in a nondescript room.

Six people sat at each table; two election workers on one side facing four witnesses on the other - one witness each for the Democratic, Green, Libertarian and Republican parties.

One of the two workers picked up a punch-card ballot and looked for the number next to the hole the voter punched back in November.

"Six," she said aloud.

Then she handed the card to the election worker next to her, who held it up, too.

"Six," the second worker said in confirmation.

Then the second worker turned the card around and held it up so each witness could see that hole six really was the one punched. And she put the card in a pile with other sixes to be counted later.

That's how it went - 500 or 600 or 700 times - until shoulders began to slump and hands rested on chins and eyelids drooped. And that was just the morning session.

Workers had 20,618 ballots to count by hand.

Three video crews captured it all on tape: the library voices everyone spoke in, the occasional laugh when a worker held up a ballot with his finger over the hole, the weariness as the day dragged on.

"Look at the determination in their faces," said R.J. Robinson, an independent documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles. "They're still determined to make a difference in the election, six weeks later."

Ohio election procedures stipulate that a recount begin with workers counting 3 percent of ballots by hand and then by machine. If the two counts match, workers recount the remaining ballots by machine. If they don't, every ballot must be counted by hand.

After more than 10 hours of recounting Thursday, Cuyahoga County election workers will return today to finish the job. They expect to be done by early afternoon.

After that, Cuyahoga, and the other 87 county boards of elections, must certify the results and send them to Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who will amend the state's official results when every county recount is in.

It's not clear when that will be.

"We would hope that the process will conclude no later than Dec. 23," said Blackwell's spokesman, Carlo LoParo. "But there are so many circumstances that come into play that are out of election officials' hands."

Tabulating machines could be malfunctioning, for example, or all ballots might have to be counted, which could take weeks.

Those witnessing Cuyahoga's recount Thursday praised the process.

"The board of elections staff could not be more professional," said Candace Hoke, a professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law who monitored the process. "There has not been one incident of heated dispute or discourteousness."

But she and others had several concerns.

They wanted the absentee and provisional ballots previously ruled invalid to be reconsidered, for one.

Cuyahoga County elections director Michael Vu said that wouldn't happen. Ballots not counted in the first place can't be recounted, he said.

Hoke also raised questions about the way the 3 percent sample was chosen only from those precincts where 550 or more ballots were cast.

The law, she said, specifies that they be chosen randomly.

But Vu pointed out that the board had used the process in the past, including in local November elections, and worried that changing procedures now would cause even bigger problems.

"When we conducted this recount we knew that anything we did there were going to be critical remarks regarding it," Vu said.

Leaving the board offices Thursday night, witness Mike Anthony said he felt part of something bigger, an effort that might convince America's leader to put meaningful election reform into place.

"As a partisan Democrat, I just want to feel secure that all the votes are counted," said Anthony, who drove from Long Island with his wife, Ann, to witness the recount.

"Please, please, please," the retired hospital financial officer said, "count all the votes."

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