Invoking rules that sometimes seem as quaint as quill pens, the House and Senate yesterday certified President Bush's reelection despite a rare objection, which was intended to spotlight voting irregularities in Ohio and elsewhere.
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) interrupted the ritual roll call of each state's "certificate of electoral votes" in a joint session of Congress, contending that Ohio's results were not "regularly given." The presiding officer, Vice President Cheney, followed constitutional guidelines and sent lawmakers to their respective chambers so that each house could debate the matter for two hours.
The outcome was never in doubt. With Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) having long ago conceded Ohio and the Nov. 2 election, Boxer and Tubbs Jones said their only goal was to highlight Ohio's Election Day problems, which included long voting lines in several minority neighborhoods compared with short lines in affluent areas.
Boxer told colleagues that Americans have fought for social, economic and criminal justice, and she said, "Now we must . . . fight for electoral justice." On the House floor, Tubbs Jones said the objection was "the only immediate avenue to bring these causes to light."
The Senate eventually voted 74 to 1 to overrule Boxer's objection, even though many Democrats defended her in floor speeches. The House voted 267 to 31 to override the objection, with no Republicans siding with Tubbs Jones. Many lawmakers were at the funeral of Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.) or on trips because they had not expected a roll-call vote.
The scene contrasted with the January 2001 certification of electoral votes, when no senators joined several black House members who objected to Florida's recount in the bitterly contested race between Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore. At least one member of each house must object in order to trigger a debate and a vote. Boxer said yesterday that she regretted granting Gore's request not to object to the 2000 electoral-vote process.
In November, Bush carried the crucial swing state of Ohio by about 118,000 votes, although voters complained of problems in many areas, most of them Democratic-leaning precincts. In Columbus, where some people waited 10 hours to vote, up to 15,000 frustrated would-be voters left without casting ballots. Poorly trained poll workers in Cleveland gave faulty instructions to voters that resulted in thousands of provisional ballots being rejected, and they misdirected several hundred votes to third-party candidates. In Youngstown, 25 electronic machines transferred an unknown number of Kerry votes to Bush, researchers found.
Similar problems occurred in other states, several Democrats said yesterday, and Congress must demand improvements such as electronic voting machines with paper trails for backup data. Congress should "take it upon itself once and for all to reform this system," freshman Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said in his first Senate floor speech.
Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) said his state's election "was fair and the result was without question" and added: "It is time to put this election to rest." Eight-term Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio) said the objection was "one of the most base, outrageous acts" he had ever seen.
Several lawmakers said they will soon introduce bills to shore up the nation's voting processes. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) will reintroduce legislation requiring that voters be able to verify their ballots' accuracy by seeing paper versions before they are cast, and requiring backup paper records to be kept on file.
Earlier in the day, more than 100 protesters rallied in front of the White House to demand and, ultimately, celebrate Boxer's decision to join Tubbs Jones in protesting the Ohio vote. They gathered in Lafayette Park, where speakers including Jesse L. Jackson, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and former Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb portrayed the November election as having been compromised by error and fraud, and demanded that the Senate do something about it.
"Some senators . . . have gone to Ukraine to investigate that election," Jackson said. "They've gone to Iraq. But not one has gone to Columbus, Ohio."
Still, some protesters said, yesterday's debates were a good start. "This is going to open the floodgates to information about what happened in Ohio," said one protester, who would give only his first name, Andy.
As the protesters spoke, construction workers were building grandstands for Bush's inauguration festivities along Pennsylvania Avenue.