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Bowing to Critics, Ohio Authorities Postpone Disposal of 2004 Ballots

By Ian Urbina
THE NEW YORK TIMES

With paper ballots from the 2004 presidential election in Ohio scheduled to be destroyed next week, the secretary of state in Columbus, under pressure from critics, said Wednesday that he would move to delay the destruction at least for several months.

Since the election, questions have been raised about how votes were tallied in Ohio, a battleground state that helped deliver the election to President Bush over Sen. John Kerry.

The critics, including an independent candidate for governor and a team of statisticians and lawyers, say preliminary results from their ballot inspections show signs of more widespread irregularities than were previously known.

The critics say the ballots should be saved pending an investigation. They also say the secretary of state’s proposal to delay the destruction does not go far enough, and they intend to sue to preserve the ballots.

In Florida in 2003, historians and lawyers persuaded state officials not to destroy the ballots in the 2000 presidential election, and those ballots are stored at the state archive.

Lawyers for J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Ohio secretary of state, said although he did not have the authority to preserve the ballots, Blackwell would issue an order in a day or two that delays the destruction and that reminds local elections officials that they have to consult the public records commissions in each county.

Federal law permits, but does not require, destroying paper ballots from federal elections 22 months after Election Day.

The critics say their sole interest in the question is to improve the voting system.

“This is not about Mr. Kerry or Mr. Bush or who should be president,” said Bill Goodman, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York group that is part of the lawsuit. “This is about figuring out what is not working in our election system and ensuring that every cast vote counts.

“There is a gap between the numbers provided in the local level records, which until recently no one has been allowed to see, and the official final tallies that were publicly released after this election, and we want to figure out why that gap is there.”

Blackwell is a Republican who is running for governor, and the threatened lawsuit could draw attention to possible irregularities in the election that he supervised.

The lawsuit would follow what researchers call the first time anyone other than county and state officials in Ohio have been given such extensive access to the main material from the previous presidential election.

After eight months inspecting 35,000 ballots from 75 rural and urban precincts, the critics say that they have found many with signs of tampering and that in some precincts the number of voters differs significantly from the certified results.

In Miami County, in southwestern Ohio, official tallies in one precinct recorded about 550 votes. Ballots and signature books indicated that 450 people voted.