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Vote Count Nears Flash Point

By Trip Jennings
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Capitol Bureau
    Ground zero for the continuing vote count in the nip-and-tuck 1st Congressional District election is the Bernalillo County voting machine warehouse in Albuquerque.
    And, as they have done four days straight, Democrats and Republicans huddled Saturday in separate groups to strategize within a stone's throw of county workers auditing Tuesday's election results.
    The only difference Saturday was that both sides conferred with national observers sent in from Washington. The observers are representatives of the two parties in Congress and are to monitor the count in a race that could turn on a small fraction of all ballots cast.
    New Mexico's 1st District race is one of a handful of undecided congressional races in the country.
    With more than 200,000 votes cast, four-term Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., kept a 1,487-vote lead Saturday over two-term Democratic attorney general Patricia Madrid. No new vote totals were released Saturday.
    But with 3,756 ballots that might still be counted, Democrats say it's too close to call. Democrats also say Wilson jumped the gun Thursday when she claimed victory.
    Ballots to be counted the next few days in Bernalillo County fall into two categories: 1,058 in-lieu-of absentee ballots and 2,698 so-called provisional ballots.
    Officials in both parties agreed Saturday that they expect little argument over the in-lieu-of ballots, which are used on Election Day by voters who say they applied for absentee ballots but never received them.
    Determining if an in-lieu-of ballot counts is a simple matter of finding out whether the person sent in an absentee ballot. If the person did vote absentee, the in-lieu-of ballot will not count. The in-lieu-of ballot will count if it's determined the person did not vote twice by sending in an absentee ballot.
    The real fireworks could come with the determination of how many of the 2,698 provisional ballots will count, representatives of both parties said.
    In the 2004 general election, more than half of Bernalillo County's provisional ballots were disqualified for various reasons, including the finding that some who cast the ballots were not eligible to vote.
    But Democrats say this year they expect the rate of qualified, or accepted, provisional ballots to climb.
    That's because they have accused Republicans of intentionally misdirecting Democrats to incorrect polling locations on Election Day. Democrats expect Madrid to make up some ground on Wilson in the provisional ballot count based on that allegation.
    Republicans adamantly deny misdirecting voters during the election and say that, even if Madrid wins the provisional ballot count, it won't be enough to overcome Wilson's lead.
    "It's a mathematical impossibility," said Republican attorney Paul Kienzle. "They want to get the margin down, and that would help them make good recount decisions."
    Democratic Party chairman John Wertheim said of the provisional ballot count, "If we don't close the gap from where it is now, frankly a recount may not be necessary. But I think we have a good chance to close it, and a possibility of flipping it."
    Results from the provisional ballot count will be key to the decision whether a recount might be sought and whether it would be full or partial, he said.
    The process of qualifying provisional ballots— determining which are acceptable and which are not— could start as early as today, said Bernalillo County Elections Administrator Jaime Diaz.
    Provisional ballots are given to people on Election Day when their names do not appear on voter registration rolls or when they show up in the wrong precinct.
    New Mexico law requires that for a provisional ballot to count, the individual must be registered to vote. A provisional ballot may also be counted if the ballot is cast outside the voter's correct precinct but within the county in which he or she is registered.
    Each provisional ballot that will be analyzed in coming days has been placed in an envelope with the voter's identifying information, election officials said.
    The battle between the two parties will center on whether information on the outer envelope is enough to correctly identify the voter.
    State law says a provisional ballot "shall be qualified as long as the voter provides a valid signature and sufficient information for the clerk to determine the voter is a qualified elector."
    Identifying information can include an address, "both present and former if applicable," a date of birth or a Social Security number.
    The Bernalillo County Clerk's office will also be on the lookout in coming days to make sure voters using provisional ballots don't vote in the wrong race, officials said.
    Individuals showing up to the wrong precinct on Election Day used the same ballot as voters in that precinct, Diaz said.
    While their votes for U.S. senator, governor and the 1st congressional race would likely count, Diaz said, races lower on the ballot, such as for state house or for county commission, might not count if they are voting in the wrong precinct.
    Some votes for Wilson or Madrid might not count if the voter cast a ballot in the wrong precinct because some Bernalillo County precincts fall into the 2nd or 3rd congressional district, Diaz said.
The count in the 1st
    WILSON 104,863
    MADRID 103,376
    These were the totals as of Saturday night. The number of outstanding ballots is from Bernalillo County, and the number will decline if some are rejected.

E-MAIL writer Trip Jennings