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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Counting Mistakes Cause Uncertainty in Other States

Election: New Mexico swings back to Gore when error is found. Iowa and Oregon also still close.

November 15, 2000|SCOTT MARTELLE and JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Al Gore may be pinning his presidential hopes on a hand count of ballots in Florida, but human errors elsewhere have fueled uncertainty over results--and left New Mexico's five electoral votes shifting like a flag in the desert wind.

Beyond the uncertainty lies oddity: A tie between Democrat Gore and GOP rival George W. Bush in New Mexico could lead to a face-off over a poker table.

Under New Mexico election codes, tied elections are settled by chance--anything from the drawing of straws to a hand of poker. The choice is up to the candidates.

Last year, for instance, a judicial race in rural Catron County finished in a tie, and the two candidates agreed to a game of seven-card stud to decide it. Incumbent Jim Blancq returned to the bench on the strength of two pairs--queens and fours--over challenger Lena Milligan's single pair of aces.

But don't look for Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. Bush to belly up to a green-felt table.

"The odds are against a perfect tie," said Randall W. Partin, an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. "And it can be any game of chance. So with video gaming, we could do it electronically if we needed to."

A card game with five electoral votes in the pot might not be such an unseemly end to New Mexico's election, which has seesawed wildly.

Gore appeared to have won the state after initial returns gave him a 6,000-vote lead. But as more ballots were counted, the lead evaporated and Bush slipped ahead by a relative handful of votes.

On Tuesday, the lead shifted again as election officials said they had discovered several errors--including one block of 500 votes in Dona Ana County that should have been posted for Gore, tipping the state back to the Democrat.

Rita Torres, the harried county clerk, said a voting machine counting absentee ballots tallied 620 votes for Gore. But some ballots were stuck in the machine and hand-counted later. An election worker then added 41 votes to Gore's total and wrote "661" at the bottom of a printout.

During the canvass Monday, another worker read the 6 as a 1, thus robbing Gore of 500 votes--a large sum given the state's razor-thin margin.

Torres said that Dona Ana County's canvass is expected to be complete by Friday, and that she did not expect any other large vote swings. Election officials for all of New Mexico's 33 counties report their final tallies to the state canvassing board, which will certify the results by Nov. 28. At that point, candidates have six days to seek a recount.

In Iowa on Tuesday, Gore's grasp on the state's seven electoral votes grew weaker as his lead over Bush shrank to about 4,000. An earlier clerical error in Sioux County gave 895 votes to Gore that should have gone to Bush.

A candidate can request a recount in a specific county three days after the canvass is completed, which would be Thursday or Friday under Iowa's rolling canvassing process.

In Oregon, Gore held a nearly 5,800-vote edge over Bush for that state's seven electoral votes, with about 14,000 ballots still uncounted.

Although Democrats have said they are confident they have won the state, the GOP has not conceded.

In a letter to Oregon's secretary of state, the Bush campaign sought a full accounting of all voters allowed to re-register after the Oct. 18 deadline.

Results in the state's first all-mail presidential election have been delayed by a flood of last-minute voters, computer problems and a large number of damaged ballots that had to be recopied by hand and tabulated.

So far, Gore's lead keeps the race outside the range of an automatic recount. His lead would have to shrink to about 2,700 votes to trigger an automatic recount.

*

Martelle reported from Los Angeles and Cart from Denver. Times staff writer Kim Murphy in Seattle contributed to this story.

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