- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio — News organizations declared President Bush a winner in the most hotly contested state in the 2004 election, but Democrats refused to concede in an election marked by extraordinary legal wrangling.

With 87 percent of the state’s precincts reporting, Mr. Bush had 2,485,860 votes (51 percent) to 2,357,347 (48 percent) for Democratic Sen. John Kerry.

Those numbers were enough for NBC and Fox News to declare a Bush victory in Ohio, but Kerry campaign officials issued a statement saying that they would win the state. A Kerry win would require that the remaining uncounted ballots in Ohio break to the Democrat by a margin of more than 2-to-1.

Polls in two Ohio counties remained open at least three hours past their scheduled closing times last night, after a judge ruled in favor of a lawsuit by state Democrats, the latest in a slew of legal challenges that have marked the state’s hard-fought presidential race.

The Democrats’ lawsuit to keep the polls open in Franklin and Knox counties reminded some Republicans of a similar suit filed in Missouri in 2000 that kept polls open an extra 45 minutes in St. Louis, a Democratic stronghold.

The Democrats sued, said Michael Deemer, legal counsel for the Ohio Senate Minority (Democratic) Caucus, because voters were found to be waiting in long lines in Franklin and Knox counties.

Democrats asked that an alternative method of voting, either with provisional ballots or with separate paper ballots, be allowed to accommodate the throngs of people. The judge ruled that paper ballots for the old punch-card system be used for those in line.

State law dictates than anyone standing in line before the polls close will get to vote. Carlo LoParo, spokesman for the Ohio secretary of state, said that office would not oppose the ruling. A source close to the state GOP, however, said Republican lawyers were contemplating a court fight.

Another late-afternoon lawsuit was filed in Blackwell and Hamilton counties, citing the landmark 2000 Bush v. Gore decision and arguing that those areas are not using a standard to count provisional ballots.

The plaintiff in the case is listed as Audrey Schoring. Her party affiliation was not clear last night.

Mr. LoParo said the state will oppose that case. “We disagree with the [lawsuit], and we will respond in court,” he said last night. “It will be resolved after the election.”

Republicans in Ohio have long been readying their own strategy to counter Democratic efforts to “change the rules” during the election, a tactic they oppose.

“This is exactly what was expected,” said Republican lawyer Brett Sciotto, who was monitoring the polling places in the suburbs of Cleveland last night. “This is a typical Democratic tactic, and we are prepared to counter it.”

The late-in-the-day lawsuit was hardly unexpected by political analysts in Ohio, who have watched more than 5,000 election lawyers descend on their state prepared to litigate if the result is close.

Ohio voters began flocking to the polls to choose their president before dawn yesterday and stood in line in steady rain — often for more than an hour — making good on analysts’ predictions of a record turnout.

Dana Walch, Ohio’s director of legislative affairs, said a record 5.8 million voters (72 percent of those registered) were expected to vote yesterday, almost a million more than the previous high turnout in 1992.

“If the biggest issue the state faces is long lines at the polling places, you know it’s a great day for democracy,” Mr. Walch said. “Things have gone very smoothly.”

Mr. Walch dismissed Democratic complaints that the long waits — with some Ohioans still waiting in line long after the polls were supposed to close — were the fault of too few and outdated voting machines that disenfranchised voters.

“They’ll be able to vote as long as they were in line at 7:30 p.m. when the polls closed,” Mr. Walch said.

Bush campaign officials said they were “cautiously confident” about the president’s chances to take the state and were buoyed by a Zogby poll released Monday night that put Mr. Bush up six percentage points in the state.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie told Laura Ingraham’s national radio show late last night that Mr. Bush had “exceeded our precinct goals in Ohio” and “so we feel really good about it.”

Ohio’s unprecedented legal wrangling began days before Election Day and continued even as ballots were being cast.

In the most significant case, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Republicans and Democrats to post observers in every precinct in the state.

Republicans said state law allowed them to stand in polling places and challenge the eligibility of voters when the Republican Party suspected they didn’t have the legal right to vote. But Democrats said this strategy was designed to intimidate black voters and suppress their party’s turnout, a viewpoint that gained the favor of two U.S. District judges Sunday night.

That decision, however, was overturned by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals early yesterday morning, and stood when the Supreme Court declined to intervene.

A federal judge yesterday morning overturned a state rule requiring that news organizations stay at least 100 feet away from a polling place to conduct exit surveys. The ruling prohibited reporters from entering polling places to interview and observe voters, but reports from across the state indicated that some journalists ignored that dictate.

A woman in the northeastern part of the state filed a lawsuit yesterday on behalf of voters who didn’t receive absentee ballots on time, asking that they be allowed to cast provisional ballots. Later in the day, after the polls had been open for several hours, a federal judge in Toledo ruled in her favor.

In a sign of how important Ohio’s 20 Electoral College votes are to ultimate victory, Mr. Bush made a hastily planned stop in Columbus to rally voters four hours after the polls opened. It was his sixth visit to the state in the past six days.

Mr. Kerry did not stop in Ohio yesterday, choosing instead to visit Wisconsin, another state in which the two men are evenly matched. The Democrat had, however, campaigned in Ohio five times in the final week, including an appearance with rock star Bruce Springsteen in the vital Democratic stronghold of Cleveland.

Audrey Hudson contributed to this report from Washington.

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