msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/3/2004 4:51:02 PM ET 2004-11-03T21:51:02

The last battleground in the 2004 presidential election was no real surprise: Ohio.  Even as Democratic candidate John Kerry conceded the election, vote counters in Ohio were still struggling to come up with an accurate tally of the state's presidential contest. 

The state's 20 electoral votes proved to be the golden spike in Bush's effort to regain the White House, pushing him over the required 270.

But the outcome in Ohio remained uncertain through Wednesday morning.  With 100 percent of Ohio's precincts reporting, a split of about 136,000 votes separated the incumbent from Kerry -- fewer than the estimated 175,000 provisional ballots issued by state poll workers.  With the swing state's vote so close, Democrats had vowed to fight for an accurate count. 

"John Kerry and I have made a promise to the American people that with this election every vote would count and every vote would be counted. Tonight we are keeping our word and we will fight for every vote," Kerry's running mate John Edwards said in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Yet the Kerry concession at around 11 a.m. EST suggested that the Democrats did not believe they had sufficient votes to make a difference in the overall result.

Provisional ballots are cast by voters whose registration records cannot be found at polling stations. By early Wednesday, both the Kerry and Bush campaigns were gathering teams of lawyers in the state to scrutinize not only the ballots but also the methods for verifying each voter's eligibility.

Ohio's provisional ballots proved to be the closest thing to hanging chads in the 2004 election -- but the controversy lasted only a few hours, contrasted with the six-week struggle over Florida's results in 2004.

'Absence of specific standards'
Ken Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state, said about 90 percent of provisional ballots in the 2000 election were found to be valid. His office said verification of the ballots could begin Wednesday, but results would not be available for at least 10 days, a period provided by state law to allow overseas ballots -- also considered provisional -- to arrive.

The legal battle over provisional ballots actually began before the polls closed Tuesday.  A lawsuit by Ohio voter Audrey Schering filed Tuesday in federal court challenged Blackwell, a Republican, over his procedures for verifying and counting provisional ballots. "The absence of specific standards and safeguards for counting of ballots in a uniform manner statewide" was unconstitutional, the suit said.

Sandra Beckwith, the chief judge for the Southern District of Ohio's Western Division, in Cincinnati, will hold a hearing at 2 p.m. ET on the lawsuit. 

Provisional ballots, required nationwide as the result of a 2002 federal law, may or may not be counted depending on whether registrations are confirmed. The ballots are required to be kept separately. Ohio has used provisional ballots for about a decade.

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Punch cards were also a potential point of contest in Ohio, given Ohio laws that allow a vote to be counted if two of the four corners of a chad -- the bits of paper punched out by voters -- remain attached. While some Ohio counties moved to more reliable electronic systems, some 3.6 million votes may have been filed on punch cards, making them vulnerable to challenges.

"It's a healthy number of votes," said Ohio State University election law expert Dan Tokaji.

Other legal wrangling
It came as no surprise to poll watchers or party strategists that Ohio's vote came under such scrutiny. Along with Pennsylvania and Florida, Ohio was one of three key battleground states where polls showed the winner would almost certainly receive only a razor-thin margin of victory.  In all three, legal jockeying for position began well before the polls closed Tuesday.

In addition to Schering's provisional ballot lawsuit, Republicans went to court seeking the right to place challengers at Ohio polling places.  While Democrats argued the tactic would intimidate voters, two court rulings sided with Republicans -- but GOP officials said their challengers would simply observe voting.

In Pennsylvania, GOP officials filed a complaint about more than 12,000 absentee ballots, claiming that Philadelphia election officials did not provide them with a complete list of absentee voters. A judge was scheduled to rule on the issue Wednesday morning, but that state's presidential election outcome did not hang in the balance.

In Florida, where the contested vote in 2000 galvanized the nation and led to a historic Supreme Court decision, scattered problems were reported with voting machines and several lawsuits were filed, including one alleging mistakes involving mailings of up to 58,000 absentee ballots by officials in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, two epicenters of 2000's post-election chaos.

Though NBC News called Florida for Bush late Tuesday night, some lawsuits are likely to move ahead. A suit by the ACLU asked for absentee votes to be handled the same as overseas ballots, which can be counted until Nov. 12. A hearing was scheduled for Wednesday morning. With 1.6 million absentee ballots expected in the state, tens of thousands of votes could still be affected.

Election-day snafus
Scattered election problems were reported all around the country, but concerns over a major breakdown of vote-tallying procedures -- such as massive failure of new electronic-voting machines used by about one-third of voters Tuesday -- were not realized.  There were scattered reports that some touch-screen machines incorrectly registered candidate choices. 

But there was some snafu-related uncertainty. A vote-counting machine in Green County, Iowa, broke down, delaying solid results from that hotly contested state until at least midday Wednesday.

The bigger problem Tuesday had little to do with technology: There were complaints nationwide about long wait times at polling places which were unprepared for large voter turnout.  Around the country, voting machines were in short supply and voting continued into the night, with many precinct staying open late to accommodate voters who stepped in line before polling times ended. An Ohio judge granted a request to provide voters waiting on line in Franklin and Knox counties with alternate ballots. Waits in Knox County were up to nine hours.

Waits elsewhere stretched on, too -- up to five hours in the tiny town of Marvin, N.C.

But most voters tolerated the delays. "They're doing a really great job," said Sandra Scippio, 47, who waited 75 minutes to vote in Miami.

The other major problem that emerged on Tuesday: A surge of new voters overwhelmed some systems designed to register them.

The Voter Alert Line, run by a consortium of non-partisan groups, had logged more than 21,400 calls from voters with complaints, mainly about voter registration or absentee ballots. Another 42,000 called with questions about where to vote.

Ken Smukler, who helped create the Voter Alert Line, said the call logs indicated that voter registration efforts might have surprised authorities in some jurisdictions. "I think that’s the lesson coming out of this election," said Smukler. A similar system operated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups logged more than 9,500 complaints, including 778 relating to electronic voting systems and nearly 500 incidents of alleged intimidation.

With MSNBC.com's Martin Wolk, Jon Bonne, and Bob Sullivan. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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