As a similar scene played out on the House floor yesterday, critics dismissed it as another exercise in futility. With the House and Senate both firmly in Republican hands, and many Democrats leery of being seen as sore losers, President George W. Bush's second official certification as the nation's president was a foregone conclusion. As expected, the challenge was defeated in both the House (267-31) and the Senate (74-1). But this time around, there was one important difference. Thirty-one congressional Democrats were joined in their challenge by Sen. Barbara Boxer, forcing both houses of Congress to hear debate and to vote on the issue. As only the second time since 1877 that Congress has been forced to consider such a challenge, the protest did more than stall certification of the Electoral College vote. It also marked Jan. 6, 2005, as a historic day. "We've breached the silence that has always prevented us from employing this statute," said Rep. John Conyers.

For Conyers and the 13 other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who held a news conference after the vote, that made the challenge, even in defeat, a victory of sorts. As members of a caucus sometimes referred to as "the conscience of the Congress," CBC members are no strangers to wringing moral victories out of what others see as lost causes. While the 43-member caucus took no official position on the challenge, 21 of the 31 House votes cast in its favor came from CBC members. The civil-rights era is a touchstone for many CBC members, and the protection of voting rights remains one of their premier concerns. Long before Election Day, caucus members worried that some blacks might be disenfranchised, and some spent months involved in voter-education and voter-turnout drives.

Yesterday's protest was formally lodged when Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, a CBC member, objected to the counting of the state's electoral votes on the ground that they were not "regularly given," a shorthand reference to a litany of complaints about Election Day problems in Ohio. Many of those problems, from inexplicable shortages of polling machines to aggressive Republican challenges of thousands of voters' eligibility, echo complaints raised after the 2000 presidential election, prompting some critics to suggest the protest was motivated by lingering resentment over that bitter contest. That may have played a role--some of Bush's most persistent and harshest critics are also CBC members--but Conyers and his colleagues insist that the true purpose of their protest was to call attention to the need for nationwide election reform. Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. said that the problems are rooted in a system that allows each state, county and electoral jurisdiction to set its own Election Day rules. "We keep having these problems because our voting system is built on the constitutional foundation of 'states' rights'--50 states, 3,067 counties and 13,000 different election jurisdictions, all separate and unequal," Jackson said.