WASHINGTON - The presidential election is over and Sen. John Kerry has conceded defeat, but the wheels are nevertheless in motion in Ohio for a recount in the state that put President Bush over the top.
The recount is being pressed even though the Kerry campaign has no hope or expectation of reversing the result. As of election night, the president carried Ohio by more than enough to avoid a mandatory retabulating of the votes.
The tally gave Mr. Bush 51.1 percent to Mr. Kerry's 48.5 percent, far in excess of the one-quarter of 1 percent winning margin that under state law would require a recount. But the law also stipulates that any bona fide candidate may trigger one by requesting it and putting up the necessary funds, at $10 a precinct, to pay for it in each of the state's 11,360 precincts in 88 counties.
Enter David Cobb, the also-ran nominee of the Green Party, and Michael Badnarik, the certified standard-bearer of the Libertarian Party. Together, their supporters have raised more than the $113,600 required. They have petitioned Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who also happened to be a co-chairman of the Bush campaign in the state, to order the recount.
Before it can take place, however, the actual statewide vote count, including all accepted provisional ballots, must be tallied. According to James Lee, of Mr. Blackwell's office, his boss under Ohio law has until Dec. 3 to certify the outcome, at which time he can then start the recount. Elected members of the Electoral College are to meet Dec. 13 in their various states, but the new Congress will not convene to receive and verify the results until Jan. 6.
The obvious question is, why bother when Mr. Kerry has conceded? Green and Libertarian supporters say the recount can uncover fraud and other irregularities. Bloggers on the Internet have been flooding it with anecdotal examples, but Dan Hoffheimer, Mr. Kerry campaign's lawyer in Ohio, says: "Our eyes are wide open, and to this date we've found no evidence of confirmed fraud."
Nevertheless, the Kerry campaign and the Ohio Democratic Party will be sending observers into precincts to monitor the recount, he says, to fulfill a promise made by Mr. Kerry to make sure that all votes cast will be counted, including all provisional ballots.
About 155,000 such ballots were cast, Mr. Hoffheimer says, and Mr. Kerry would have had to win nearly all of them to overcome Mr. Bush's lead of 135,000 votes in Ohio on election night. "It would have to be a virtual miracle," he says. But monitoring the recount may provide lessons about how the provisional ballot procedure worked and how it can be improved for the next election.
In Ohio, 67 of the 88 counties used punch-card ballots of the sort that caused major problems in Florida in 2000. But all of the precincts used machines that have a recount capability, Mr. Lee says, and the statewide recount should be possible within a day or two of Mr. Blackwell's instructions to start it, though critics dispute that.
Several private groups, one of them led by David Lytel of the Web site ReDefeatBush.com, are also suing on grounds that large numbers of Ohio voters were disenfranchised in violation of the 14th Amendment. He expressed dismay that the Kerry campaign seems willing to settle for "meaningless political hot air" rather than striving to reverse the election outcome.
He cites numerous allegations of voter irregularities, Republican suppression and suspicious voting machine results that a true recount could substantiate. Mr. Lytel, a former Clinton White House official, says of the recount that the Republicans in Ohio are going "from a how-dare-you strategy to a run-out-the-clock strategy" instead of addressing the allegations.
Another recount is under way in New Hampshire at the request of Reform Party nominee Ralph Nader. Mr. Lytel insists that tabulation errors in Ohio can cast doubts on results from Florida and other closely contested states, further building the case for other recounts that against all odds could give the election to Mr. Kerry.
But time and the willingness of Republican election officials to cooperate make such a reversal the longest of long shots.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.
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