The Case For An Immediate Recount

by John Marino

November 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. What seemed like the stupidest idea of post-Election Day Puerto Rico has suddenly become its brightest. Three days into "completing the vote count" from the Election Day governor’s race, it has become increasingly clear that a full vote recount is in order.

When the State Elections Commission preliminarily certified the vote count in the gubernatorial election on Nov. 3, with just over 98 percent of the vote counted, the Popular Democratic Party’s Aníbal Acevedo Vilá had a 3,880 vote lead over New Progressive Party La Fortaleza hopeful Pedro Rosselló.

There were some 30,000 votes, half disputed, left to count, more than an opportunity for the lead to change. It seemed imminently sensible to complete the count and add up the score, before going into a complete recount.

But ever since Election Day, it has been clear that a complete recount would likely take place. That’s because any candidate has the opportunity to ask for one if the margin in the race is 0.5 percent or less of the overall vote, which in this case is 9,000 or 10,000 votes. Given the cards on the table, nobody expects either candidate to win by more than the amount that would grant either of them a recount upon request under local election law.

That’s why the SEC originally announced that it would undertake a recount and a final accounting of Election Day votes at the same time. It seemed absurd at the time, but that was before the current process underway had begun.

Although all three parties had agreed to the plan, the PDP filed a complaint over the weekend citing local election law in arguing that a completion of Election Day returns should be finalized before undertaking a recount. SEC President Aurelio Gracia said he preferred the original plan, but he acceded to the PDP request, saying its arguments were based in law, and he agreed to complete the Election Day count before completing the recount.

Only a handful of precincts in San Juan have been counted since the process recommenced on Monday. That’s because not only are the additional 30,000 ballots being counted, but also polling station tally sheets are being rechecked as part of the process. Since they are apparently rife with mathematical errors, in many cases, ballot boxes are being reopened and recounted. The average rate of voter box recounts ranges from 20 percent to 60 percent of all votes at the polling stations checked so far.

In essence, a partial recount is occurring along with a completion of the Election Day count. About half of those 30,000 ballots are hand-added ballots, and each one has to be verified to ensure that the voter was properly registered and hadn’t voted elsewhere, which is also dragging out the process.

Current estimates put the length of the current process in about three weeks. That means that a complete recount could not begin until late November or early December. While the SEC still believes it will finish the recount before Christmas, it will nonetheless add an extra month to the uncertainty surrounding the current election. Instead of Thanksgiving, Puerto Ricans now likely won’t know who their next governor is until Christmas.

While the PDP has the letter of the law on its side, any moral ground supporting its argument is disintegrating rapidly under its feet.

PDP officials first argued for completing the count on the grounds that Acevedo Vilá’s lead would widen by a sufficient margin that a recount might be unnecessary. They now say that the lead might change day by day, but won’t change by more than a couple hundred votes at the end the tally sheet review. Current trends bear that out (Rosselló had cut into Acevedo Vilá’s lead by about 80 votes after three days of counting.)

Now the PDP mantra is that a recount does not have to take place. It’s not automatic. It has to be requested under the law. And Rosselló does not have to ask for one, PDP officials say. The current tally sheet check is enough. It’s a reliable process.

"Why does the NPP have to push for a recount when this is a much faster and trustworthy process," PDP Electoral Commissioner Gerardo Cruz told reporters. "Now we have opened about 20 percent of the boxes, but a recount would imply opening all of them and re-counting every single vote."

When asked whether the PDP would opt not to ask for a recount should it lose the lead during the tally sheet review, Cruz said: "It's something Acevedo Vila would need to decide."

The NPP has made clear since the night of the election it wants a recount. It’s the party’s right under the law, and it could even be seen as acting negligently to its supporters if it declined to seek one.

All this week, party leaders have been attacking Gracia for his acceptance of the PDP plan to separate the two processes. And they have been threatening to file a federal lawsuit against the SEC in order to halt the review, and get a complete recount started immediately.

The NPP finally filed its suit Thursday, which seeks a halt to the tally sheet review and the transition committee meetings between the Calderón administration and the Acevedo Vilá team. It argues, rightly, a full recount of votes is needed to determine who will be the next governor.

Now the NPP should stop some of its officials, such as electoral commissioner Thomas Rivera Schatz, from launching some of the more vitriolic verbal attacks against Gracia.

It's a political style that about half Puerto Rico, give or take a few, rejected at the polls when they voted against Rosselló. And it's a big part of the reason the NPP has, so far, come up short in the gubernatorial race.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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