Ohio emerged as the key battleground late yesterday, as the race for president narrowed to depend heavily on the outcome of balloting that will not be known for as many as three weeks and could be the focus of intense litigation.
With 20 electoral votes and an estimated 5.8 million voters swarming the polls, the blue-collar bastion turned out to be as closely fought as many Democrats and Republicans had predicted. The state has lost more than 200,000 jobs over the past four years and has historically proved crucial to the election of GOP presidents.
The election could hinge on as many as 250,000 additional provisional ballots -- cast by voters whose eligibility was unclear on Election Day -- as well as tens of thousands of absentee military ballots. The provisional ballots are counted if the voters are later deemed eligible, but under state law they cannot be counted for 11 days. State officials said last night they would not declare a winner if the margin between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry was narrower than the number of provisional ballots.
To complicate matters further, some voters in the state were still casting ballots as late as 2:30 a.m. today because of long lines at the polls. Nearly three-quarters of the state's registered voters cast ballots.
Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell estimated early this morning that the number of provisional ballots could be 175,000, although he had said earlier that the total could reach 250,000. As of 2:20 a.m., at least 96,221 of the ballots had been used, but 25 counties had not reported their numbers, according to Blackwell's Web site and the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.
As Ohio's emerging status as potential kingmaker became clear early this morning, Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards told supporters that he and Kerry "will fight for every vote. You deserve no less."
The Republicans, meanwhile, were already laying the groundwork for legal arguments through a variety of tactics, including using observers to take copious notes of voting behavior in Democratic and heavily minority precincts. Democrats, who argued that the tactics amounted to unlawful intimidation, were unsuccessful appealing the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mark Weaver, a lawyer for the Ohio GOP, said the party also filed a federal lawsuit in Cincinnati asking for uniform standards in counting provisional ballots. The issue could prove crucial in coming days because, in its ruling to halt the recounting of votes in Florida in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court found that equal protection rights had been violated when counties tallied votes differently. Similar arguments could be applied to how counties review provisional ballots for eligibility.
"We're ready, we're on the field and we're armed," Weaver said.
Ohio law provides for a recount if the margin is less than a quarter of 1 percent. The law also allows military ballots to come in as many as 10 days after the election, so long as they were postmarked by Election Day.
Although nearly three-quarters of Ohioans cast their ballots on the punch-card ballots that caused problems in Florida four years ago, officials say Ohio has relatively clear statewide recount standards. In the weeks leading up to the Ohio balloting, Democrats sued in Cincinnati and elsewhere to stop Republican efforts to challenge voters in polling places, resulting in a series of back-and-forth rulings from federal courts.
Yet in the end, few challenges were actually mounted, election officials and party observers said. Officials from both parties also said there were few reports of voting irregularities in Ohio of the kind alleged four years ago in Florida.
But Ohio Democrats complained that voting lines across the state were onerous, and some voters were still waiting to cast a ballot early this morning. A federal judge ordered officials in Franklin and Knox counties to give waiting voters punch-card ballots to move the line faster, an action the state attorney general appealed and Democrats subsequently opposed.
In central Ohio, voters primarily from Kenyon College in Knox County waited for more than eight hours at a polling place that had not prepared for an onslaught of newly registered voters.
"We didn't have enough machines, and we didn't strategize well enough," said Thomas F. McHugh, chairman of the Knox County Board of Elections. "We got caught up in a real bind."
Nick Papa, 18, a freshman at Kenyon, said he got in line at 4:30 and was told it might be six or seven hours, but he was still in line at 1:30 a.m. At one point, election officials offered paper ballots, but the students rebelled, saying they wanted to use the electronic machines "to make sure our votes count," Papa said.