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N.M. Vote Count Completed; Results Won't Be Certified Until Tuesday

By Andy Lenderman And Rene Romo
Journal Staff Writers
    It took two weeks— and it's still unofficial— but New Mexico's 33 counties have completed their vote-counting from the Nov. 2 election.
    President Bush is still the winner, although that won't be certified until the state canvass in another week.
    Meanwhile, contrary to some popular impressions, New Mexico isn't bringing up the rear in the count.
    Ballots were still being tallied Tuesday in Ohio and Washington and recounts were under way in other states with close races. Colorado was still counting provisional ballots on Monday.
    "Whenever it's close everybody wants to know immediately," said state Bureau of Elections Director Denise Lamb. "... And there is that pesky little law that tells us that we count every vote."
    After two weeks of controversy, lawsuits and national scrutiny, New Mexico's vote counting ended with 86 ballots being found Tuesday in a locked bathroom in the Doña County Courthouse.
    The Doña Ana County Commission on Tuesday afternoon was the last of the 33 county canvassing boards in the state to certify its tally.
    Mari Langford, the county election supervisor, said election workers were aware that ballots had been stored in the bathroom, but did not realize until the end of the canvass that the 86 ballots from one precinct had not yet been counted.
    The statewide results won't be certified until the state canvassing board meets Tuesday. The state canvass is an audit and numbers could change, although a swing of thousands of votes would be unexpected.
    Lamb noted that the presidential contest wasn't the only close race on the New Mexico ballot this year. And she pointed out that some other states do not certify their final results until New Mexico does, or later.
    Bush, who's had the advantage over Democrat John Kerry throughout the count in New Mexico, carried New Mexico with a margin of 6,047 votes, according to the tally Tuesday by the Associated Press. However, the president's lead narrowed throughout the county canvasses.
    And in Doña Ana County, where Bush was the Election Day leader, Kerry edged out the president in the final count with 51 percent of the vote.
    All other New Mexico counties had already sent their final results to the secretary of state, Lamb said. The tallies include provisional, absentee and electronic ballots.
    Republicans in particular have been critical of how long the New Mexico vote counting has taken, and have criticized the secretary of state's Web site, which has an incomplete vote total.
    "Of course, valid provisional ballots have to be counted," Republican lawyer Pat Rogers said Tuesday. "What was disappointing Election Night and every day after that is the secretary of state's failure to be able to provide basic numbers, including the total number of votes, and basic procedures for clerks to follow.
    "It is clear beyond doubt that differing standards were used by clerks to validate provisional ballots and that's the secretary of state's fault," Rogers said.
    Provisional ballots were largely a new wrinkle in this year's general election and procedures for handling and counting them weren't always clear. They were guaranteed to voters under the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002. They were given to voters whose names were not on precinct lists, or who encountered other problems at polling places.
    Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron was traveling Tuesday and not immediately available for comment on Rogers' complaints.
    But Lamb defended her boss, and her comments indicated a combative and long history with Rogers over various election issues.
    "Mr. Rogers is awful free with his comments for someone who has never conducted an election in his life," Lamb said. "In terms of the Web page we had initially hoped to update it as we canvassed each county. But when one county came in and the numbers changed we were accused of trying to throw the election to one side or another."
    Partisan perceptions about the quality of the vote count were on display in Doña Ana County as well on Tuesday.
    Several Republicans asked commissioners to order a recount or an audit, but the board voted 3-0, with one abstention, to certify results.
    In the face of various criticisms raised by Republicans, County Clerk Rita Torres, a Democrat, said she did not anticipate the large volume of provisional ballots— roughly 2,700— that swamped election workers.
    Langford said the count was also delayed an estimated 40 hours by a court order requiring local election workers to announce the names and addresses of voters who cast provisional ballots, along with the reason why ballots were counted or disqualified.
    The order was sought by local Republicans, and Doña Ana and Sandoval counties were the only ones in the state required by court orders to do so.