Congress has met in a constitutionally mandated joint session to formally certify the results of the November election that gave President Bush a second term in office. Democrats used the occasion to force a debate on election results from Ohio, the state that was key to Mr. Bush's victory, and to call for a wider national discussion on electoral reform.
Two mahogany wood boxes containing the electoral certificates were carried into the House chamber accompanied by Vice President Dick Cheney and other Senators.
State-by-state, certificates were taken out and formally recorded and announced.
"Pursuant to the Constitution and the laws of the United States, the Senate and House of Representatives are meeting in joint session to verify the certificates and count the votes of the electors of the several states for President and vice president of the United States," said Mr. Cheney
In the more than two months since the November election, controversy has swirled around the results from Ohio.
On Thursday, a group of House Democrats challenged the Ohio result, citing a report alleging serious irregularities, including voter intimidation, and problems with voter registration lists.
Cheney: "The clerk will report the objection."
House Clerk: "We, a member of the House of Representatives and a U.S. senator, object to the counting of electoral votes of the state of Ohio, on the ground that they were not under all of the known circumstances regularly given."
President Bush won the election with 286 electoral votes, to 252 for Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry. Mr. Bush also won the popular vote by more than three million, and Ohio by 118,000 votes.
Senator Kerry, who conceded the presidential race, did not join Thursday's Democratic protest. But he did issue a statement citing what he called very troubling questions about the vote in Ohio.
Congressional rules require any protest to be backed in writing by a member of the Senate.
California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer joined the challenge by colleagues in the House.
"Every citizen of this country who is registered to vote, should be guaranteed that their vote matters," she said.
The challenge was dismissed in advance both by Ohio state officials, and the White House. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan.
"I think the American people spoke very clearly on Election Day, and the election is behind us," said Mr. McClellan. "The American people now expect their leaders in Washington to focus on the big priorities facing this country and to act on those priorities. It is time to move forward and not engage in conspiracy theories or partisan politics of this nature."
Ohio Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones strongly disagreed.
"This objection does not have at its root, the hope or even the hint of overturning the victory of the president, but it is a necessary timely and appropriate opportunity to review and remedy the most precious process in our democracy," she stated.
House majority leader Tom DeLay called the Democratic challenge an effort to undermine democracy, saying it shows Democrats learned nothing from the outcome of the November election.
Ohio Republican Bob Ney said "those who believe this election was stolen will always believe it, no amount of facts or evidence will convince them otherwise," said Mr. Ney. "The bottom line is those bringing this challenge today simply cannot accept the fact that George Bush has been elected president of the United States."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi responded, saying "our very democracy depends again on the confidence of the American people in the integrity of the electoral system," she said. "So my colleagues, please don't talk about this [as a] conspiracy theory, it is not about that. It is about the constitution of the United States."
Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., son of the civil rights leader, is among African-American lawmakers asserting that voting irregularities disadvantage minorities, and undermine efforts to strengthen equality in America. "The American people are gradually losing confidence in the credibility, the fairness, the effectiveness, and the efficiency of our voting system," he added.
Senate Democrats called for new efforts to standardize electoral procedures across the country. "Because of different electoral practices in states across America, voters who wish to cast a vote for president or vice president can't approach the polls with certainty that their vote will be counted or that they can vote in a fair and convenient manner," said Senator Richard Durbin.
Senator Hillary Clinton said the integrity of voting in the United States has implications for other countries as well. "We have stood with Ukrainians, Iraqis and others around the world, but increasingly I worry that if this body, this Congress, doesn't stand up on a bipartisan basis for the right to vote here at home, our moral authority will be weakened," said Mrs. Clinton.
Neither the Republican-controlled House nor Senate supported the Democrat-sponsored objection.
After the 2000 election that pitted President Bush against former vice president Al Gore, Democrats challenged the results based on voting problems in Florida, but failed to obtain support from anyone in the Senate.
The last time a challenge to a state's electoral votes forced Congress to interrupt a joint session was in 1969 and before that, in 1877.
Congress this year must re-authorize a law that sought to improve electoral standards, but has since been criticized as being inadequate.