Ohio election officials said yesterday that they would begin later this week the final count of 155,428 provisional ballots and an unknown number of overseas absentee ballots that were cast in the presidential election.
According to the preliminary tally, which included all domestic absentee ballots, Sen. John F. Kerry lost Ohio by 136,483 votes, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell said.
Attorneys for the Kerry cam paign said yesterday that they did not believe the outcome of the Ohio vote - which gave President Bush the electoral votes needed to win - could possibly change. They have dis couraged speculation that vot ing irregularities caused Kerry's loss.
Nonetheless, the Ohio count is attracting scrutiny by groups that say the election was tainted and voting equipment in Ohio, Florida, South Carolina and elsewhere was defective.
On Friday, three congres sional Democrats asked for a federal investigation.
Since the election, Internet sites and political blogs have buzzed with speculation that the vote was manipulated.
"Evidence mounts that the vote may have been hacked." reads the title of one widely cir culated Web offering.
Machine failures, lines
Voting machine failures did occur, and long lines in heavily Democratic precincts discour aged some potential voters. Still, a broad range of experts said that the final vote counts in Ohio and other states could not possibly change the outcome.
Cleveland attorney Mark Grif fin, who played a key role in the Kerry campaign's voter protec tion efforts in that area, said he did not expect the tallying of provisional or absentee ballots to change anything.
After meeting yesterday with Michael Vu, head of the board of elections in Ohio's Cuyahoga County, Griffin said: "This is really not about changing the outcome. ... It is about making sure every vote counts, particu larly people who waited in line three hours."
The 2004 Ohio vote was not nearly as close as the disputed Florida results in 2000.
If all of the provisional votes are deemed valid, then Kerry would need 88 percent of them to overcome Bush's margin of victory, assuming the remaining overseas absentee ballots were split evenly.
But many of the provisional ballots will be tossed out. In past elections, about 10 percent were judged as not coming from legitimately registered voters.
What's more, Blackwell ruled before the election that provi sional ballots had to be cast in the correct precinct and that any cast at the wrong polling place would not be counted.
If 10 percent of the provisional ballots are rejected, then Kerry would need to get 97.6 percent of the remaining ones to overcome Bush's lead.
"There are a lot of conspiracy theory folks out there thinking that - with a machine problem here and a long line problem there and the provisional ballots - the result is in doubt." said Edward J. Foley, a professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. "I have seen nothing to indicate that the re sult is in doubt."
But Foley said the election re vealed problems that need to be remedied.
Counting of the provisional ballots is expected to begin Sat urday, although state law allows counties to delay the canvass until Nov. 18, said James Lee, secretary of state spokesman.
Ohio does not face any legal deadline to produce an official total, although in past elections final counts were completed by Dec. 1.
Under state law, each county will examine the provisional bal lots, which are sealed in enve lopes. Before opening the enve lopes, a team of elections offi cials - split evenly between de clared Democrats and Republicans - will decide whether the voter who cast the ballot was registered by the early October deadline and vot ing in the correct precinct.
After all provisional ballots have been passed or rejected, the envelopes will then be opened, Lee said.
"Our system is designed to be bipartisan in every aspect." he said.
But irregularities and prob lems have cropped up nonethe less.
On Friday, officials in Frank lin County - which includes Co lumbus, the state capital - con ceded that they might have im properly counted votes for Bush because of a touch-screen voting system malfunction.
One precinct in the county re ported that a 4,000-vote margin won by Bush appeared to ex ceed the number of registered voters.
The touch-screen system in Franklin County is among the oldest and least reliable elec tronic voting machines in use, said David Dill, a Stanford Uni versity computer expert. Asked how an electronic voting ma chine could run up nearly 4,000 extra votes, Dill said anything from an internal misalignment to static electricity could cause an error.
"The point is that these ma chines are nowhere near reliable enough to depend on." Dill said.
Based on reports that Dill's organization - VerifiedVo ting.org - has received, one pre cinct in Youngstown, Ohio, re corded a negative 25 million votes, which was discarded from official results.
And it was widely reported af ter Nov. 2 that a North Carolina precinct lost 4,000 votes when a recording device used up all its memory but voters continued to cast ballots on the machine.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspa per.