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GOP Seeks Impound of N.M. Ballots

Courts: Bush has a slim lead, and officials said the move would preserve the 'status quo' in a recount.


DENVER — Republican Party officials in New Mexico over the weekend sought to protect George W. Bush's scant four-vote lead and asked judges to order all early and absentee ballots impounded.

The requests were granted in two judicial districts Saturday night. Judges in the state's other 11 districts were expected to be contacted today. The move was not part of a recount--which cannot be requested until after the New Mexico vote is certified on Nov. 28. Rather, GOP officials said, it was necessary to "preserve the status quo" should a recount be necessary.

Texas Gov. Bush dramatically took the lead Friday night, after the 10,000-vote election night cushion of his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, dwindled as ballots in the state trickled in. New Mexico has five electoral votes.

The impoundment order requires state police to seize ballots from six county election offices and place them under lock in a central spot.

Democrats reacted with expected ire Sunday. State chairwoman Diane Denish called the action "part of the Republicans' scorched-earth strategy. . . It's not helping the integrity of the process; it's undermining the process. Not all counties have finished their canvass."

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of Republican Rita Nunez-Neumann, who lost a race for state appeals judge by about 35,000 votes. The move would presumably assist her in calling for a recount of her race. Party officials say the tight presidential race had nothing to do with the ballot-impounding call.

New Mexico state Republican Chairman John Dendahl said impoundment was the best way to protect ballots. "New Mexico is, frankly, fraught with errors in elections," he said. "We really do have a history of malfeasance and questionable custody of ballots after elections. We are simply attempting to preserve the voters' wishes."

The state's ballot count has been problematic. Some 67,000 early and absentee ballots in Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, were not counted until Friday and there remain 189 "in lieu of," or provisional, ballots to be counted. County elections officials say that tally will be done by Thursday.

In-lieu-of ballots are given to voters who requested absentee ballots but did not receive them.

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