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Workers Hand-Tally Votes Inside County Warehouse

By Dan McKay
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    In Bernalillo County, it seems the dreary part of democracy always ends up in a drab warehouse, with weary election workers hand-tallying ballots among fast-food cups, political observers and attorneys.
    This year is no different.
    About 100 election workers continued to tally 4,580 ballots by hand Wednesday at the warehouse, near Interstate 25 and Montaño NW.
    And after that is finished, they still have another 3,800 provisional and "in-lieu-of" absentee ballots to examine. They will start counting those today, and County Clerk Mary Herrerra estimated it would take two days.
    They are counted as part of the canvassing process, which is expected to move into full swing this morning after the hand-tallied votes are counted, Herrera said. The canvass, which is similar to an audit of the vote and is required before the results are certified, is expected to take about 10 days.
    Meanwhile, an attorney for the state Democratic Party filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to clarify what determines whether a provisional ballot is accepted or rejected.
    Herrera had a one word-answer when asked how it was going: "Slow. Slow, slow, slow."
    The hand tally involves ballots that are rejected by tabulation machines, which won't read ballots marked in red ink or that have some other problem, such as eraser marks.
    At the center of the hand tally this year is the race in the 1st Congressional District, where Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., was locked in a close battle for re-election against Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid.
    The hand tally can be a dull process. Teams of election workers representing Republicans and Democrats go through each ballot to record its vote in each race.
    Independent representatives of the political parties are allowed, in some circumstances, to challenge the work. They might, for example, argue over which bubble the voter filled in or what to do if one of the marks has been crossed out.
    Absentee ballots account for most of the hand tally, but some of the ballots are from early-voting sites or Election Day precincts.
    The count is overseen by an election worker called a presiding judge.
    Here is a look at votes that weren't counted on Election Night:
  • About 2,700 provisional ballots. Provisionals are normally filled out by voters who don't appear on the roster of registered voters at the Election Day precinct where they show up. Voters who insist they are registered can fill out a provisional ballot, which is counted only if the voter is found to be registered somewhere. Roughly half of these ballots usually end up being tossed out and not counted.
        Challengers from the political parties will be arguing over which ballots to accept, but temporary election workers hired by the County Clerk's Office will make the final decision.
        Democratic Party officials said the lawsuit, filed in state District Court in Santa Fe by lawyer John Boyd, seeks to have one clear standard in place before the provisional ballots are counted today.
        The lawsuit contends that the secretary of state's regulations are more restrictive than state law regarding which ballots can be accepted.
        According to the lawsuit, regulations say provisional ballots should be rejected if the voter hasn't provided on a ballot envelope a signature, address, date of birth and other information.
        State law, however, says a ballot should not be rejected if the voter fails to include some of that information, as long as a valid signature is provided and there is enough information for the clerk to determine the voter is qualified.
        The federal Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress after the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida, called for special ballots that allow people to vote when they're not listed on the voter roster. The ballots have been called fail-safe voting because they let people vote even if there's some question about voter eligibility, said Ray Baray, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office.
  • About 1,060 "in-lieu-of" absentee ballots. These ballots are issued to voters who show up at the polls even though they have requested an absentee ballot. They must sign a statement saying they didn't receive their absentee ballot, and the "in-lieu-of" ballot is counted as long as the voter didn't also send in an absentee ballot. Most of these ballots ultimately are accepted and added into the election results.
  • About 2,400 absentee ballots that were dropped off at Election Day precincts. A new state law allows voters who haven't mailed their ballots to show up at the precincts where they are registered and drop off their ballots. Most of those were counted by machine tabulators early Wednesday and added to the unofficial election results before noon. The ones rejected by the machines became part of the group to be hand-tallied.
  • The 4,580 ballots rejected by the machine tabulators and being hand-counted Wednesday. The clerk's office expected to complete the count Wednesday night.
        Journal staff writer Olivier Uyttebrouck and The Associated Press contributed to this report.