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Contentious 2000 Election Closest in N.M. History

By Deborah Baker
The Associated Press
       SANTA FE   —   The state's elections chief called it "the election that would not die." While Florida's dimpled chads held the nation's attention in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, a lesser drama played out in New Mexico.
    The 2000 presidential contest was the closest in state history, and among the most contentious. At stake were five electoral votes   —   not enough to give either George W. Bush or Al Gore the presidency.
    The election also highlighted the variety of human errors that can affect an election's outcome.
    "Those kinds of things undoubtedly happen in every single election, but the only time you see it is when an election is so close that it's worthwhile to put a microscope on it and find the little errors," said John Dendahl, who in 2000 was the GOP's state chairman and its chief cheerleader.
    It was a full month after the Nov. 7 balloting before Gore's win in New Mexico by a mere 366 votes was finalized   —   and then only because the Bush campaign decided not to ask for a recount.
    The problems started on election night, with odd-looking returns from early voting in populous Bernalillo County. It appeared as though thousands of people had gone to the polls but not voted for either Bush or Gore.
    More than 60,000 absentee and early votes were yanked from the tally. It was determined that because of a programming error, the votes of those who cast straight-party votes hadn't been parceled out to the individual candidates.
    Machines were reprogrammed and votes were recounted   —   including more than 250 that were believed missing, then found in a stray, locked ballot box. After four days, Bush   —   who at first trailed Gore by more than 6,800 votes   —   appeared to be ahead statewide by a handful of votes.
    Diane Denish, now lieutenant governor and then the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, recalls arriving alone at the warehouse where the recount was held and finding "a bank of Republican lawyers there, waiting."
    "I remember being unprepared for the post-election, and I really had to scurry around to get the kind of help we needed and get the local lawyers activated," she said.
    Bush continued to pick up votes as various counties canvassed their returns and made final adjustments to their totals to fix errors   —   for example, an election worker's logging an incorrect number while taking a phone report from a precinct.
    Dona Ana County provided the next big surprise: Gore should have been credited with 621 absentee votes, rather than 121 he had initially been awarded. It was blamed on bad penmanship. The extra 500 votes tipped the state to the Democrat.
    Antsy Republicans had state police impound or otherwise secure absentee and early ballots across the state, saying they wanted them protected in the event of a recount or challenge.
    Even the usually pro forma state canvassing board   —   which had to certify the election on Nov. 28   —   had a tough time. It certified Gore as the winner, but delayed making it official for another two days so a judge in Roosevelt County could oversee a final inspection of returns.
    Sure enough, a programming error similar to that in Bernalillo meant that more than 500 votes cast by straight-party voters hadn't been assigned to candidates. The totals was adjusted again.
    "You can do everything humanly possible to train people, but in the end, if you have one or two people across the state that make mistakes, it could have a tremendous impact," Denise Lamb, who heads the state Bureau of Elections, said in a recent interview.
    Dec. 8 of 2000 was the deadline for candidates to ask for recounts. Republicans who had spent days in county courthouses hand-inspecting absentee and early ballots in 17 counties in a search for irregularities thought a recount was worth a shot.
    "It would have been just as narrow as it was for Gore, but we were pretty confident it would have turned around and gone the other way," Dendahl said.
    But Bush couldn't very well support a recount in New Mexico while opposing one in Florida, so "he just had to suck it up and take his hit in New Mexico," Dendahl recalled.
    "I guess we can safely say the election that would not die is over," Lamb said upon hearing the news.
    Denish disputes that a recount would have changed the outcome. Democrats would have countered with recount requests in their strongholds, or statewide, and picked up votes for Gore, she said.