WASHINGTON — Congress certified President Bush’s re-election Thursday, but only after Democrats forced a symbolic challenge to the quadrennial count of electoral votes for just the second time since 1877.
Bush’s re-election triumph over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was never in jeopardy, and both houses swiftly rejected the challenge. But the procedure gave Democrats the opportunity to force Congress to recess their joint session as required by law and hold separate debates on the Ohio irregularities.
Democratic leaders distanced themselves from the effort, which many in the party worried would make them look like sore losers. Bush won Ohio by 118,000 votes and carried the national contest by 3.3 million votes, and Kerry himself, meeting with troops in the Middle East, did not support the challenge.
Even so, several Democrats, including many black lawmakers, tried using the sessions to underscore the missing voting machines, unusually long lines and other problems that plagued some Ohio districts, many in minority neighborhoods, on Nov. 2. The irregularities meant the Ohio votes “were not, under all known circumstances, regularly given,” in the words of the formal protest lodged by Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
“If they were willing to stand in polls for countless hours in the rain, as many did in Ohio, then I can surely stand up for them here in the halls of Congress,” Tubbs Jones said.
‘Get over it’ urged
The debates were tinged by memories of the 2000 election, when Bush edged Democratic Vice President Al Gore after six weeks of recounts and turmoil in Florida.
“There’s a wise saying we’ve used in Florida the past four years that the other side would be wise to learn: Get over it,” said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla.
The joint session began as required by law at 1 p.m. ET, with Vice President Dick Cheney presiding as the Senate’s president and about 100 lawmakers present.
One by one and in alphabetical order, certificates of each state’s electoral votes were withdrawn from ceremonial mahogany boxes and read aloud. The session usually goes quickly, but when Ohio’s votes were read 16 minutes into Thursday’s meeting, Tubbs Jones and Boxer issued their challenge to the state’s 20 electoral votes. Ohio had put Bush over the top.
By law, a protest signed by members of the House and the Senate requires both chambers to meet separately for up to two hours to consider it. The Senate session lasted just more than an hour and ended when the chamber voted 74-1 to uphold Ohio’s votes, with Boxer’s the lone dissent. The House followed suit shortly thereafter, voting 267-31.
Two previous episodes
The last time the two chambers were forced to interrupt their joint session and meet separately was in January 1969, when a North Carolina elector designated for Richard Nixon voted instead for independent George Wallace. Both chambers agreed to allow the vote for Wallace.
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The previous challenge requiring separate House and Senate meetings was in 1877 during the disputed contest that Rutherford Hayes eventually won over Samuel Tilden.
The action was always going to leave Bush’s victory intact because both Republican-controlled chambers would have had to uphold the objection for Ohio’s votes to be invalidated.
Hoping to avoid accusations of trying to upset the election, supporters of the challenge repeatedly said they had no such desire. Many even said they would vote against their own motion and in favor of validating the disputed Ohio tally to avoid clouding the real issue — the need to make the country’s voting systems fairer and more accurate.
“Our people are dying all over the world ... to bring democracy to the far corners of the world. Let’s fix it here,” Boxer said.
But that did not stop Republicans from casting Democrats as trying to subvert the election results.
Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said Democratic complaints were “outrage based on fantasy conspiracies.” At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan dismissed the move as politically driven, saying, “It is time to move forward and not engage in conspiracy theories or partisan politics of this nature.”
Reid initially opposed tactic
Senate Democratic aides said new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., initially opposed challenging the Ohio vote and questioned Boxer about it when she told him she would join the protest.
He spoke briefly during the Senate debate, saying, “The sacrifice of our military demands that we ensure that our own elections are fair.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declined to directly answer reporters’ questions about whether she supported the move. But she, too, spoke during the House debate, saying of the challengers, “This is their only opportunity to have this debate while the country is listening.”
Bush defeated Kerry, 286-252, on Election Day, with 270 needed for victory. When electors met last month in state capitals to formally vote, an unknown Kerry elector in Minnesota cast a secret ballot for former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., Kerry’s running mate.
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