SANTA FE SPRINGS — In the end, it came down to whether an X in a ballot box was a precisely drawn cross, or otherwise was improperly marked or smudged.
But on Tuesday, Al Fuentes was installed on the City Council and Ruben Elizalde was left to consider taking the election to court.
The election here last week for the only open seat was in limbo for three days as various official and recounts tallies showed a different winner each time.
On election night, Fuentes was ahead by two votes, prompting Elizalde to comment that he was going to ask for a recount.
The next day, several ballots were added to the count during the official canvass by the city clerk, putting Elizalde ahead by one. Finally, after the recount held Friday, Fuentes won again with 688 votes to Elizalde's 686.
Both Sides Lose Votes
Several ballots that were not marked correctly were thrown out during the recount, taking away votes from both Fuentes and Elizalde, who came in second and third, respectively, on election night.
But after the dust settled, Fuentes was the victor. Councilman Ronald S. Kernes, who was reelected to a third term, garnering the most votes, 1,045, in a race in which seven candidates ran for two seats.
The flip-flop in the election has "frustrated" and "upset" Elizalde, who went through the experiences of losing, winning and then losing again within a week. The election night count gave Elizalde 692 votes to Fuentes' 694. Elizalde was ahead by one vote the next day after the official canvass by the city clerk.
"I was upset. The way the city conducted the recount was not appropriate," said Elizalde, who added that he didn't know what to expect during the recount. "I can't see losing the election on a technical error."
Elizalde said he was especially bothered by the indecision of the precinct board that conducted the recount and ruled on challenges of ballots by both Elizalde and Fuentes.
Standards for Rejection
"The standard by which ballots were rejected or accepted was not the same for every ballot," said Elizalde, 31, who teaches mathematics at Gahr High School in Cerritos. Some of the paper ballots were invalidated because the ink was smudged, the mark was not within the box or the mark was other than an X, city officials said.
Elizalde, who acknowledged that he has exhausted all other remedies, said Wednesday he has not decided whether to take the matter to court.
Though Fuentes won on election night with complete, but unofficial results, the next day he lost it when the totals changed in the official canvass by City Clerk Hazel Thomas.
Two absentee and two "provisional" ballots, which were not counted on Tuesday, were included in the official tally. Three votes from those ballots went to Elizalde, putting him ahead by one, 695 to 694. Fuentes then paid $230 for a recount.
During Friday's official recount, several ballots were thrown out because of what the precinct board felt were improper markings, said Thomas. Neither election officials nor anyone from either campaign kept count of the ballots that were invalidated, though those present variously estimate that between eight and 15 ballots were thrown out.
The four-member precinct board was assembled by Thomas from a pool of clerks, judges and inspectors who worked election night, said administrative clerk Renee Carlson.
Thomas said the provisional ballots were not counted until the next day because the city has to call up the county registrar and verify that the ballots were cast by registered voters. Provisional ballots are used for voters who show up at a polling place but whose names are not listed.
The two absentee ballots came in at 9 p.m. election night. Thomas said precinct workers "just didn't give me them that night in time for the board (that counted absentee ballots) to open them."
Before the recount started, Thomas said the guideline used by the precinct board to judge the ballots came from the 1986 state Elections Code, which states that "any vote will be counted not on the intent of the voter but whether it was marked in a legal manner."
The ballots that were thrown out were "not marked within confines of the law," said Thomas. "It's clear in the Elections Code that (ballots) have to be marked in a certain way."
The unusual circumstances have also been stressful for Fuentes, who won his second bid for a council seat.
"It's been a hectic week," said Fuentes, who was endorsed by council members Betty Wilson and Kernes. "I win the day of the election and then they open ballots and I lose by one."
But he said he is happy with the results and "was glad in the end, when I came (out) ahead."
Fuentes, 57, who works for the Philadelphia Carpet Co. here, said he does not have immediate plans for once he is on the council, but that he wants to continue the "progress" of the city before introducing any new programs.