Stewart of MIT was skeptical, too. But he ran the numbers and came up with the same result. "You can't break it; I've tried," Stewart said. "There's something funky in the results from the electronic-machine Democratic counties."
Berkeley sociologist Michael Hout, who directed the study, said the problem in Florida probably lies with the technology. (Florida's touch-screen machines lack paper records.) "I've always viewed this as a software problem, not a corruption problem," he said. "We'd never tolerate this level of errors with an ATM. The problem is that we continue to do democracy on the cheap."
A Heated Run-Up
By October, the Bush and Kerry campaigns knew that this midwestern state was a crucial battleground. Each side assembled armies of 3,000 lawyers and paralegals, and unaffiliated organizations poured in thousands more volunteers. Both parties filed lawsuits challenging rules and registrations.
Two decisions proved pivotal.
Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who was co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Ohio, decided to strictly interpret a state law governing provisional ballots. He ruled that voters must cast provisional ballots not merely in the county but in the precise precinct where they reside. For cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati, where officials long accepted provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct, the ruling promised to disqualify many voters. "It is a headache to take those ballots, but the alternative is disenfranchisement," said Michael Vu, director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, which includes Cleveland.
Earlier this year, state officials also decided to delay the purchase of touch-screen machines, citing worries about the security of the vote. That left many Ohio counties with too few machines. County boards are split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, and control the type of machines and their distribution. In Cuyahoga County, officials decided to quickly rent hundreds of additional voting machines.
Other counties decided to muddle through. At Kenyon College, a surge of late registrations promised a record vote -- but Knox County officials allocated two machines, just as in past elections. In voter-rich Franklin County, which encompasses the state capital of Columbus, election officials decided to make do with 2,866 machines, even though their analysis showed that the county needed 5,000 machines.
"Does it make any sense to purchase more machines just for one election?" asked Michael R. Hackett, deputy director of the Board of Elections. "I'll give you the answer: no."
On Election Day, more than 5.7 million Ohioans voted, 900,000 more voters than in 2000.
In Toledo, Dayton, Columbus and Akron, and on the campuses at Ohio State and Kenyon, long lines formed on Election Day, and hundreds of voters stood in the rain for hours. In Columbus, Sarah Locke, 54, drove to vote with her daughter and her parents at a church in the predominantly black southeast. It was jammed. Old women leaned heavily on walkers, and some people walked out, complaining that bosses would not excuse their lateness.
"It was really demeaning," Locke said. "I never remembered it being this bad."
Some regular voters filed affidavits stating that their registrations had been expunged. "I'm 52, and I've voted in every single election," Kathy Janoski of Columbus said. "They kept telling me, 'You must be mistaken about your precinct.' I told them this is where I've always voted. I felt like I'd been scrubbed off the rolls."
Aftermath of Nov. 2
After the election, local political activists seeking a recount analyzed how Franklin County officials distributed voting machines. They found that 27 of the 30 wards with the most machines per registered voter showed majorities for Bush. At the other end of the spectrum, six of the seven wards with the fewest machines delivered large margins for Kerry.
Voters in most Democratic wards experienced five-hour waits, and turnout was lower than expected. "I don't know if it's by accident or design, but I counted a dozen people walking away from the line in my precinct in Columbus," said Robert Fitrakis, a professor at Columbus State Community College and a lawyer involved in a legal challenge to certifying the vote.