Democrats Force Debate on Ohio Election Problems

By BRIAN KNOWLTON

International Herald Tribune

January 7, 2005

WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 - A small group of Democrats transformed the traditionally routine ritual of certifying presidential election results into a tart partisan protest today, forcing both the House and Senate to debate Election Day voting problems in Ohio, the state that gave President Bush the crucial electoral votes needed for his re-election.

With both houses under Republican control, the move, only the second of its kind since 1877, did not threaten Bush's victory over Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Indeed, some Democrats opposed it and the White House spokesman likened it to a pursuit of "conspiracy theories."

But its rarity underscored a lingering sensitivity to election irregularities like those that overshadowed the 2000 election. Democrats complained this time that Ohio election officials, headed by a Republican who led the Bush campaign in the state, had provided too few voting machines in some Democratic precincts and allowed other irregularities.

The challenge also demonstrated a readiness among some Democrats, even with the party's diminished presence in the new Congress, to draw a line against a Republican Party that appears determined to make maximum use of its reinforced majority.

The Democratic move forced members of the Senate and the House of Representatives to meet separately today to consider Ohio election practices, interrupting the scheduled early-afternoon tally of Electoral College votes. Both houses of Congress ultimately rejected the challenge by wide margins later this afternoon.

Such a Congressional challenge requires a formal objection to be lodged by a member of each chamber. Not even the sharply disputed 2000 vote had produced a Senate backer - members appeared wearily resigned after the prolonged Florida recount - though some House members supported a challenge at the time.

This time, Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, joined some House Democrats in challenging the certification of Ohio's 20 electoral votes. That state lifted Bush past the 270 Electoral College votes required for election, to a 286-to-252 victory.

"I have concluded that objecting to the electoral votes from Ohio is the only immediate way to bring these issues to light," Ms. Boxer said in a letter to Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, a leader of the Democratic challenge.

"The goal is to debate the issue," Mr. Tubbs Jones told The Associated Press. "And why not? We go across the world trying to ensure democracy, but there are some problems with the process in the United States."

But when the Senate voted this afternoon on the challenge to the Ohio result, after a session lasting just over an hour, Ms. Boxer stood alone, with 74 other senators rejecting it. The House later rejected the challenge by a vote of 267 to 31.Mr. Kerry, who has been traveling in the Middle East to visit American troops in Iraq, said the Ohio voting procedures raised "very troubling questions," which he vowed to take up this term. But he declined to join the protest.

Several Democrats said they saw no point in a challenge that might offend voters while painting Democrats as sore losers. The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, said she would vote to uphold the Ohio vote.

Bush won by 118,000 votes in Ohio, according to a recount, and by more than 3 million votes nationwide.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, dismissed the Democrats' move. "I think the American people expect members of Congress to work together and move forward on the real priorities facing this country," he said, "instead of engaging in conspiracy theories."

Democrats have complained of voting-machine shortages in urban precincts of Ohio that normally vote strongly Democratic. They have cited reports that some voters in those districts felt intimidated by Republican agents, or that Democrats' names were wrongly purged from registration lists.

Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, had issued a report claiming "numerous, serious election irregularities" in the Ohio election, attributed partly to "intentional misconduct and illegal behavior" by Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.

A spokesman for Mr. Blackwell, who was co-chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio, called the criticism "ludicrous."

The House and Senate were last forced to meet separately to hear election challenges in January 1969. That year, a North Carolina elector who had pledged to support Richard M. Nixon broke with long tradition and voted instead for George Wallace, the independent candidate. Both chambers allowed that rare "faithless" vote to stand.

The last previous such challenge arose in 1877, following the disputed election contest between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. Hayes, the Republican candidate, ultimately became president.