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Governor's Race Keeps Puerto Rico In Suspense


November 17, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

Puerto Rico officials are conducting an escrutinio, or review of vote summaries from each precinct after a 3,880-margin in the Nov. 2 election.
PHOTO: Laura Magruder for The New York Times

SAN JUAN, P.R., Nov. 16 - If Florida's five-week recount after the 2000 presidential election seemed endless, pity Puerto Rico.

A recount is all but certain in the race for governor here, after the Election Night tally gave Anibal Acevedo Vilá, the candidate who favors keeping the island's commonwealth status, a margin of just 3,880 votes. But the process will not start until December, and come Christmas - even New Year's, some predict - Puerto Ricans may still be guessing who their next governor will be.

Blame Puerto Rican election law, which requires an "escrutinio," or review of vote summaries from each precinct, before an official recount of the roughly two million paper ballots cast on Nov. 2. Hundreds of officials from the island's election commission and its three major parties are submerged in that task, while Mr. Acevedo Vilá forges ahead as the presumed victor and Pedro Rosselló, the pro-statehood candidate, protests. The officials are also checking the validity of about 30,000 ballots that did not make the initial count, a slow process that sometimes involves determining voter intent.

Mr. Rosselló, a former two-term governor whom polls showed leading throughout the race, sued in federal court last week, protesting Mr. Acevedo Vilá's appointment of a transition team and demanding an immediate recount. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday, but Mr. Acevedo Vilá's confidence appears unshaken. His family toured the governor's mansion on Monday, and his wife said her children were choosing bedrooms.

If Mr. Acevedo Vilá prevails, Puerto Rico's leadership will be strikingly divided. For the first time, the governor and the resident commissioner in Washington, the island's next-highest-ranking official, will be from opposing parties, as the new commissioner, Luis Fortuño, is pro-statehood. Mr. Acevedo Vilá also would face a largely pro-statehood Legislature.

In another twist, the scrappy Independence Party lost its status as a political party for the first time in decades because its candidate did not win enough votes. Many independentistas crossed party lines to support Mr. Acevedo Vilá - not out of love for him, party officials said, but out of hatred for Mr. Rosselló, the candidate of the New Progressive Party. To regain party status, the independentistas will need to gather 100,000 signatures.

But the future is on hold, and every ounce of partisan rancor is focused on the delayed election result and the cumbersome process of reaching it. Members of Mr. Acevedo Vilá's party, the Popular Democratic Party, say that Mr. Rosselló is being a baby.

"There are some people that only believe in democracy when they win," Héctor Luis Acevedo, a former San Juan mayor and former head of the Popular Democratic Party who now advises it, said in a telephone interview. "This was the will of the people, the election results are clear, and the former governor has to learn how to lose."

Mr. Rosselló, whose supporters have posted "Vamos al Re-Cuento!" - Let's go to the recount - signs around San Juan, say that Mr. Acevedo Vilá's proceeding as the victor has made a nasty situation nastier.

"They have tried to project this as a done deal," Mr. Rosselló said in a telephone interview. "His family even went to La Fortaleza to look at the rooms they will be occupying. This is being done to try to establish in the minds of the people the premise that this is decided."

At the elections commission building, the noisy, over-caffeinated room where the escrutinio is under way has the feel of a factory assembly floor. Officials from the three parties crowd at folding tables, surrounded by mountains of brown boxes holding ballots. Every box would be opened in a recount, but for now the only ballots examined are those from precincts whose vote summaries do not add up, and those that went uncounted on Election Day. They make up a quarter of the total, officials said.

Cheers and boos erupt now and then, most notably when Mr. Rosselló showed up several times last week. The process stops and starts and stops again, partly because Mr. Rosselló's party keeps introducing new charges. On Friday, when the party raised the possibility of ballot fraud, the mood in the building got so tense - foot-stomping, heckling, impromptu marches - that the elections commissioner, Aurelio Gracia, sent everyone home early.

Mr. Rosselló initially complained about the decision to delay a recount until after the escrutinio, which the election commissioner defended as proper procedure. But now he is also charging ballot fraud, saying that some ballots appear to have been marked by more than one person. He is also seeking to invalidate thousands of "mixed ballots," on which voters endorsed the Independence Party but also Mr. Acevedo Vilá. Mr. Acevedo Vilá's party says those votes are perfectly legal.

"It was only on Friday, when they realized the votes for Rosselló were not there, that they came up with this theory of illegal votes," Mr. Acevedo Vilá said in a telephone interview. "That is an attempt to steal the election. There is no other way to describe it."

He said he was only complying with the law in proceeding as governor-elect.

The party sought to delay a recount, required when the margin of victory is less than 0.5 percent, in hopes that the escrutinio would give Mr. Acevedo Vilá enough new votes to prevent one.

But so far, the tally has changed only slightly. The process could drag on until mid-December, officials from all three parties said, adding that the recount could last into 2005. The island's constitution requires that a new governor be in place by Jan. 2. The current governor, Sila M. Calderón of the Popular Democratic Party, did not seek re-election.

César Vázquez, a former president of the election commission, said the close race and its messy aftermath proved the need for an updated voting system here. He said each voter filled out three paper ballots: one for governor and resident commissioner, one for legislators and one for local candidates.

"When you multiply that for almost two million voters, that is tons and tons of paper," Mr. Vázquez, a member of Mr. Rosselló's party, said in a telephone interview.

But Mr. Acevedo, the adviser to the Popular Democratic Party, said Puerto Rico's old-fashioned system ensured high turnout, including among illiterate voters.

Mr. Acevedo Vilá said he was wary of electronic voting and that the current system engendered trust. "It is foolproof against fraud because you have the evidence right there," he said. "Thank God for paper ballots."

Terry Aguayo contributed reporting from Miami for this article.

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