Boxer Poses a Challenge, Briefly

Times Staff Writer

To call attention to voting problems, California Sen. Barbara Boxer and an Ohio congresswoman forced a delay of the ceremonial count of electoral votes Thursday in a joint session of Congress called to certify President Bush's reelection victory.

The protests lodged by Boxer and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, both Democrats, spurred House and Senate debates on voting problems in Ohio, the state that decided November's election. Boxer said her purpose was not to overturn Bush's reelection but, rather, to focus new attention on flawed voting practices. She also said she regretted not raising a similar objection over the Florida results in the 2000 election, which narrowly tipped that year's White House contest to Bush.

"I hate inconveniencing my friends, but I think it's worth a couple of hours to shine some light on these issues," Boxer said during the Senate's debate. "Our people are dying all over the world, a lot from my state, for what reason? To bring democracy to the far corners of the world. Let's fix it here, and let's do it first thing."

Republicans denounced as "frivolous" the effort by Boxer and Tubbs Jones to question the validity of the Ohio tally, with several saying Democrats were acting like sore losers.

Defeated Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said this week he did not support the effort to challenge the Ohio results. On Thursday, Kerry was traveling in the Middle East.

But Boxer and other Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), insisted they were questioning the process, not the outcome.

And ultimately, Pelosi and most other Democratic lawmakers joined Republicans to vote to confirm the Ohio results.

The objection to the Ohio results by Boxer and Tubbs Jones came during the official reading of the state-by-state tally of electoral college votes in the joint session presided over by Vice President Dick Cheney.

After Ohio's result was declared "regular, in form and authentic," Cheney noted that a written objection had been filed. He then ordered the House and Senate to convene independently to discuss the objection.

The Senate debate ended after about an hour, and the chamber voted 74-1 to uphold the Ohio results, with Boxer casting the sole vote to challenge them.

After a lengthier debate, the House voted 267-31 to accept the Ohio results; all of the ballots supporting a challenge were cast by Democrats.

Lawmakers from both chambers then reconvened and completed the electoral vote tally. Cheney read out the final vote: 286 votes for Bush, 251 for Kerry.

On election night, Ohio's 20 electoral votes pushed Bush beyond the 270 he needed for victory.

Kerry won 252 electoral votes, but an apparent error by a Minnesota elector reduced his official tally by one vote. When Minnesota's 10 electors officially cast their votes for president in December, one apparently mistakenly entered the name of then-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Kerry's running mate. So Edwards officially received one vote for president.

Four years ago, several African American House members tried to force a debate on certifying the results for Florida, a state Bush won by 537 votes following a legal battle that was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the House members were thwarted when no senator joined their objection.

Last year's controversial movie "Fahrenheit 9/11," by Michael Moore, included a scene showing the representatives pleading with senators to join their objection, while then-Vice President Al Gore presided over the tally that sealed his own defeat to Bush.

Boxer denied that the movie played a role in her decision this time to support the objection to the Ohio tally.

"Four years ago, I didn't intervene. I was asked not to by Al Gore, and I didn't," Boxer told reporters before Thursday's session. "Frankly, looking back on it, I wish I had."

A key difference between the two elections was that in 2000, Bush lost the nationwide popular vote by about 500,000 but secured enough electoral votes to win. In 2004, he won the popular vote by about 3.3 million.

Bush carried Ohio in November by about 118,000 votes. But the election in the state was marked by excessively long lines in some precincts -- largely in urban areas, where Democrats dominate -- as well as other irregularities.

A report issued this week by the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee alleged "numerous, serious election irregularities in the Ohio presidential election, which resulted in a significant disenfranchisement of voters."

But Boxer and other Democrats acknowledged that the problems were not extensive enough to change the result of the election -- a point Kerry noted when he conceded to Bush the day after the Nov. 2 vote.

"This objection does not have at its roots the hope or even the hint of overturning the victory of the president," said Tubbs Jones, a former judge whose Cleveland district was the site of many of the alleged problems in Ohio. "I raise this objection because I am convinced that we as a body must conduct a formal and legitimate debate about the election irregularities."

Since the election, questions about the Ohio tally have become a favorite topic on Internet websites and discussion boards, championed by some online columnists known as bloggers, many of whom have charged that Bush won the election unfairly.

At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan accused Boxer and others of being swayed by those charges and "just engaging in conspiracy theories for partisan political reasons."

"The American people expect members of Congress to work together and move forward on the real priorities facing this country instead of engaging in conspiracy theories and rehashing issues that were settled long ago," McClellan said.

Both in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, many of the irregularities occurred in districts with large African American populations, prompting criticism that GOP officials were trying to limit the vote from largely Democratic black voters.

Thursday's debates represented the first time since 1969 that the two chambers were forced to interrupt the reading of the electoral vote tally to consider the validity of a state's results. That year, a so-called "faithless" North Carolina elector designated for Richard Nixon defied his state's vote result and switched his vote to George Wallace. After its debates, Congress agreed to recognize the switch.

The first time the count of electoral votes was interrupted was in the aftermath of the disputed 1876 presidential election. Following a protracted process, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was eventually declared the winner of that contest.

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Times staff writers Richard Simon and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.

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