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Internet buzz on vote fraud is dismissed

WASHINGTON -- As they ricochet around the country on the Internet, the details seem aligned to raise the eyebrows of suspicious Democrats.

President Bush recorded 4,258 votes to Senator John F. Kerry's 260 in one suburb of Columbus, Ohio -- where only 638 ballots were cast. Across Ohio, some 76,000 punch-card ballots did not register votes for president, and officials have only begun to comb through 155,428 provisional ballots.

In Holmes County, Florida, though nearly three-quarters of registered voters are Democrats, Bush wiped out Kerry, 6,410 to 1,810, in results that mirrored those in several other counties where optical-scan paper ballots were used. And in Florida's Broward County, after the first 32,000 absentee ballots were fed into the computer system, a software glitch caused additional ballots to be subtracted from vote totals, rather than added.

A week after Kerry conceded and Bush declared victory, those assertions and scores of others from New Mexico to North Carolina have kept alive fierce speculation that Bush's victory either wasn't real or wasn't as decisive as it seemed. With memories fresh from the 2000 irregularities, e-mails and Web postings accuse Republicans of stealing an election.

Much of the traffic is little more than Internet-fueled conspiracy theories, and none of the vote-counting problems and anomalies that have emerged are sufficiently widespread to have affected the election's ultimate result.

Kerry campaign officials and a range of election-law specialists agree that while machines made errors and long lines in Democratic precincts kept many voters away, there's no realistic chance that Kerry actually beat Bush.

''No one would be more interested than me in finding out that we really won, but that ain't the case," said Jack Corrigan, a veteran Kerry adviser who led the Democrats' team of 3,600 attorneys who fanned out across the country on Election Day to address voting irregularities.

''I get why people are frustrated, but they did not steal this election," Corrigan said. ''There were a few problems here and there in the election. But unlike 2000, there is no doubt that they actually got more votes than we did, and they got them in the states that mattered."

Still, with reports swirling on the Internet, six Democratic members of Congress have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate. Leading academics have joined the fray as well, saying that the integrity and future of the nation's voting system demand a vetting of all claims.

''The kind of thing that has to happen is a full-scale investigation," said Troy Duster, a New York University professor who is president of the American Sociological Association. ''It sounds like a paranoid fantasy, but I think the data suggests that even if Bush won, he didn't win by the kind of margins that are out there. We have a crisis here of potential legitimacy with all the stuff going on on the Web, and the way to deal with this is to do the research."

Most of the focus has been on results in Ohio and Florida, since if either of those states had gone for Kerry instead of Bush, the Massachusetts senator would be president-elect. Early exit polls in both states indicated that Kerry was track to win, and in each state voting and counting irregularities in numerous places have been reported. ''Fraud took place in the 2004 election," declares the team at, one popular website that is compiling reports of election problems.

''Kerry won. Here are the facts," reads the headline on a widely circulated article written by the author of a scathing book on the Bush family.

Another site suggests Kerry is refusing to contest the election because fellow members of the Yale secret society Skull and Bones forbade him to do so.

After one e-mailer erroneously suggested that Kerry's brother, Cameron, was compiling reports of voting problems, Cameron Kerry's e-mail inbox was inundated with hundreds of messages, received at the pace of several per minute through yesterday. He sent out a stock response saying ''we are not ignoring" the reports, asking that they be forwarded to the Democratic National Committee instead of his e-mail address at his Boston law firm.

Though Corrigan said all allegations will be investigated by the Democratic legal team, he added that it has become clear that 2004 was no repeat of 2000. That year, an abbreviated Florida recount resulted in a 537-vote margin of victory for Bush, and many Democrats believe a full and impartial recount would have handed the election to Democrat Al Gore.

This year, the race wasn't nearly as close in the states that hung in the balance. According to preliminary results from last week's election, Bush carried Florida by 380,000 votes, and Ohio by 136,000. Corrigan said Democrats won't push for hand recounts this year, because they wouldn't change the results, a point backed by election specialists.

''I think it's safe to say that on the votes that were cast in Ohio, Bush won," said Dan Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University who is working with the ACLU to challenge Ohio's use of punch-card ballots. ''If the margin had been 36,000 rather than 136,000, we would have seen another post-election meltdown."

The apparent computer glitch that awarded Bush an extra 3,893 votes in Gahanna, Ohio, was quickly caught and won't be in the final certified numbers. The 76,000 punch cards across the state where no vote for president was recorded include ballots cast by people who chose not to vote for the top office, as well as those who mistakenly chose more than one candidate. That group, of course, includes voters who intended to support Bush as well as those who meant to support Kerry.

As a percentage of the total, the number of ballots recording no vote for president was actually lower than it's been in recent elections in the state, Corrigan noted. Democrats are making sure provisional ballots are counted, but almost all of those votes would have to be for Kerry to swing the election, and many are expected to be ruled invalid.

In Florida, the Democratic-leaning counties that went for Bush are in the culturally conservative Panhandle, where the president beat Gore in 2000 and where he made particularly intense appeals this year. The software error that started subtracting votes rather than adding them affected only a few ballot measures, and was caught and corrected.

Richard Hasen, an election law specialist at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, noted that with the election overseen by 13,000 different local jurisdictions -- many of which were employing new technologies on Election Day -- scattered problems were inevitable.

''I would be surprised if there wouldn't be glitches like this," Hasen said.

As for the exit polls, they remain subject to sampling errors and limitations in data gathering. The polls sponsored by a consortium of media companies had margins of error of roughly 3 percent, and in closely contested states shown to be leaning toward Kerry, narrow Bush wins were actually within the expected range. Florida's margin was larger than expected, but poll takers reported problems getting close enough to voting places to collect adequate samples, and said they feared they were not getting Bush voters to be as forthcoming with their choice as Kerry voters.

Heather Gerken, a professor at Harvard Law School, said the fact that this year's election went smoothly compared to 2000 shouldn't blind policy makers to problems still inherent in the system. Many jurisdictions continue to use outdated equipment, states are behind in compiling reliable voter lists, and elections are still run by partisan officials, she said.

''I have not yet seen anything that convinces me that the election was stolen, but I certainly think that we should treat these allegations seriously and do them justice," she said. ''There's clearly problems with the elections system. It's crucial to the health of this country that we have an election system that we can trust."

Globe correspondent Alan Wirzbicki contributed to this report. Rick Klein can be reached at 

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