Enquirer News Update   -   Updated 6:40 p.m.

Provisional ballots could decide election

By Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writer

COLUMBUS - Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell estimated early this morning that 175,000 provisional ballots are still outstanding.

George W. Bush was leading Sen. John F. Kerry by 51 percent to 48 percent. The margin was about 144,000 votes.

"There's a lot of speculation about provisional ballots. We've heard numbers floating around like 250,000 provisional ballots. I don't know how anybody knows that number," Blackwell said.

Still, Blackwell gave an estimate based on numbers reported by a majority of the state's 88 boards of elections as of just before 2 a.m. There were 76,027 provisional ballots reported from 68 counties, but many larger counties had not yet reported.

Provisional ballots are those cast when there's some doubt about the eligibility of the voter, either because of a recent change in address, an error in registration, or an uncompleted absentee ballot. Under Ohio law, they may not be counted for 10 days, after which they're added to the Election Night results and the overseas absentee ballots.

There were about 100,000 provisional ballots cast in 2000.

The overseas ballots are never more than a few thousand, and - inasmuch as many of them are from military families serving overseas - will likely break toward the incumbent commander-in-chief.

Does that mean he's ready to call the election for Bush?

"I'm not in the business of projections. That's what you guys do," Blackwell told several dozen reporters gathered at the Statehouse in a sometimes contentious news conference at 2 a.m. "I'm in the business of administering and managing a fair election.

... What I've told everybody to do is take a deep break and relax."

As for when the final, unofficial results with 100 percent of precincts will be completed, Blackwell repeated the mantra he had been using all night on the major television networks: "What we want is an honest count, if it takes me two hours, two days or two weeks."

Blackwell downplayed reports of long lines at polling places, saying it was "a sign of a robust democracy."

"What you got was a well managed election by 50,000 election officials and poll workers over 88 counties," he said.

The final Hamilton County vote was 53 percent for Bush and 47 percent for Kerry.

The Butler County vote was 66 percent for Bush and 34 percent for Kerry.

In Clermont County, Bush took 71 percent of the vote to 29 percent for Kerry.

Bush won Warren County with 72 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Kerry.

E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com