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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Missteps, Blunders Plaguing Tally in New Mexico's Biggest County

November 12, 2000|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALBUQUERQUE — While Florida election officials carried out a contested recount of ballots from Tuesday's presidential race, here in a drafty warehouse patrolled by sheriff's deputies, officials continued the struggle to count--for the first time--ballots cast in Bernalillo County.

The county has one-third of New Mexico's registered voters, and its election effort has been plagued by computer-programming blunders and a series of missteps. First a programming glitch left 67,000 ballots untallied on election day. Then a box full of uncounted ballots went missing. Then, during Friday's "final, final" accounting, a last-minute decision allowed a batch of disallowed ballots to be counted.

All of which has been presided over by the county's serene three-term clerk, Judy Woodward, whose annual difficulties processing election returns have earned her denunciations around the state from Cimarron to Carlsbad.

Her staff's slow-poke approach to tabulating results delayed what has been a dramatic outcome: As of late Friday, Vice President Al Gore's 10,000-vote election night margin in New Mexico had evaporated into the dry desert air. With all but 189 votes tallied, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, has taken a statewide lead of four votes and can, for now at least, lay claim to New Mexico's five electoral votes.

The minuscule margin makes the presidential race in New Mexico the closest in the nation and one of the closest on record anywhere. Unlike Florida, the state has no provision for an automatic recount in closely contested races.

New Mexico is not alone in experiencing election irregularities, but when they occur, they do seem to congregate in Albuquerque. People here expect it. Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron sighed when asked, for the umpteenth time, how it could take one county so long to count 600,000 ballots.

"What can I tell you? It's Bernalillo County," she said. "This is not the first or second or even third time this has happened. It's embarrassing to the county because they still can't get it right. They haven't been able to solve these problems in 20 years."

Last week's morass developed when the county's voting machines failed to properly handle ballots in which voters cast a straight-party ticket. Woodward accepted responsibility for the computer-programming error, and she vowed to solve it. But then she angered state election officials by sending poll workers home at 10 p.m. Tuesday instead of immediately ordering a hand count.

In spite of the incomplete tally from the state's largest county, the networks declared Democrat Gore the winner.

He remained the apparent winner for three days. The count of the county's 67,000 early and absentee ballots began in earnest late Wednesday, but by then other problems were developing. County officials announced that they had misplaced 257 ballots. They later turned up in a locked ballot box--in the same voting machine storage warehouse where the counting was taking place.

No sooner had the errant ballots been found, however, than the disposition of another batch of ballots was announced: County election officials decided that 355 ballots that had been thrown out because a voting machine rejected them would be counted after all.

These, officials said Friday night, would surely be the last ballots to be counted.

That pronouncement did not last long. A number of "in lieu" ballots also were to be dealt with. These ballots, sometimes called provisional or emergency ballots, had been cast on election day by voters who had requested absentee ballots but did not receive them. Voters were allowed to vote after signing an affidavit attesting that they had not already voted absentee.

These ballots, Woodward said, which numbered "around 150 but the figure could also be 189," will be counted Tuesday or possibly Thursday.

Television reporters scrambling to deliver breaking election news to viewers have juggled calculators and calendars on camera. The safe report seemed to be that Friday night's dramatic reversal of fortune for Gore could just as easily be reversed again this week.

To add to the general distress, the county election Web site was hacked Friday afternoon by someone who left the name "Prime Suspectz." Officials said the hacker did not tamper with the election figures, and they took the incursion in weary stride.

"Welcome to Bernalillo County," sighed county spokeswoman Elizabeth Hamm.

State officials were furious at yet another brouhaha in the county. In the 1996 general election here, results were delayed several days by a series of blunders that included the discovery of 688 uncounted ballots in a county warehouse.

"I don't think I was inept," Woodward said at the time. The regal 72-year-old clerk offered the same assessment of her performance in this year's election.

Denise Lamb, director of the state Bureau of Elections, said multiple times last week that Woodward is "incompetent" and that the county is well known for its difficulty running elections.

"If I had my way, I'd hang her out the window of this building," Lamb said from the Capitol in Santa Fe. "They've never gotten anything right in that county. She doesn't feel like she wants to waste her time with the pesky election laws of the state."

Despite the specter of even more painstaking ballot counting this week, and undoubtedly more scrutiny of her county's electoral process, Woodward remained cheery late Friday.

Before she left for the night she observed to no one in particular, "It's kind of fun, isn't it?"

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