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Madrid Draws GOP's Fire

By Trip Jennings And Jeff Jones
Journal Staff Writers
    Republicans cried foul Monday after Attorney General Patricia Madrid's office provided legal advice on how to count Bernalillo County ballots in her close 1st Congressional District race against Rep. Heather Wilson.
    The legal advice could allow more provisional ballots to be counted in the ongoing tallying of votes— a possible advantage for Madrid, who trailed Wilson by 1,487 votes.
    "The attorney general should never even have been asked to rule on this, because it's a clear conflict of interest," said Enrique Carlos Knell, spokesman for the four-term Republican congresswoman.
    Assistant Attorney General Chris Coppin said he— not the Democratic attorney general and Wilson's challenger— gave the advice to the Secretary of State's Office concerning what constitutes a valid signature on the 2,698 provisional ballots yet to be tallied from the Nov. 7 general election.
    Coppin said politics played no role in his advice.
    "We isolated the attorney general from giving the advice," Coppin said. "I've not talked to her about it, nor will I. She's not advising the secretary of state— I am. ... We came down on the side of common sense."
    Coppin wrote a letter to the editor, published in the Journal on Oct. 17, calling some of Wilson's campaign advertising false. He also noted in the letter that he had in the past voted for Wilson and contributed small amounts of money to her campaigns.
    Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron defended the decision to go to the Attorney General's Office for advice and said it was not Madrid herself who provided the advice.
    She said the request had been made by the Bernalillo County attorney, but county spokeswoman Liz Hamm denied that county officials had sought an opinion from the Attorney General's Office.
    "Not only was it appropriate, but they gave me the right advice," Vigil-Giron said of Coppin's advice.
    Wilson claimed victory in the race last week, but Madrid has not conceded, and Democrats say the count of provisional ballots could close the margin with Wilson if not overturn it.
    The 2,698 provisional ballots are in addition to 1,058 "in-lieu-of" ballots that have not been tallied.
    The Bernalillo County Clerk's Office on Monday did not disclose how many provisional ballots had been qualified or accepted.
    However, Democratic and Republican observers said a majority of provisional ballots were being qualified.
    County Clerk Mary Herrera plans to report today the numbers of provisional and in-lieu-of ballots that have been qualified.
    At issue in the dispute Monday was what constitutes a valid signature for provisional ballots, which are given to would-be voters on Election Day when their names do not appear on voter registration rolls or when they show up in the wrong precinct.
    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."
    Each provisional ballot being analyzed by election workers comes in an envelope with two places for a voter's signature: one attesting that the voter didn't vote twice, and another used for updating voter registration records.
    To qualify a ballot, election officials can also look at the voter's signature on the precinct roster where the person voted.
    The signatures are not compared against any other document, said Bernalillo County Elections Administrator Jaime Diaz, with attorneys for Democrats and Republicans agreeing. However, voter registrations are confirmed by comparing the voter's name with the statewide voter registration database, Diaz said.
    The Bernalillo County Clerk's Office maintained that workers could not qualify ballots using the voter-registration signature on the outside of the ballot envelope. But Democrats favored being able to go to any of the three places to verify a valid signature.
    State Elections Director Ernest Marquez said that, based on the advice from the Attorney General's Office, the secretary of state decided the voter-registration signature, or a signature in either of the two other places, would suffice for qualifying a ballot.
    "The statute requires a signature on the outer envelope," Coppin said. "If they sign one signature line, that's good enough."
    It was unclear Monday night how many provisional ballots might be at issue. But with Madrid trailing in the race and observers from both political parties agreeing that she will likely win a majority of the provisional votes, every qualified ballot could be vital.
    By 6:30 p.m., 10 teams of county workers and partisan observers had analyzed hundreds of the provisional ballots.
    Some of the provisional ballots have been easy to qualify or disqualify, Diaz said.
    Some of the disqualified ballots fell afoul of simple rules, such as a voter casting the provisional ballot in the wrong county or not being registered to vote.
    A few were rejected from Sandoval County registered voters who live in the 1st Congressional District but cast ballots in Bernalillo County. The 1st Congressional District encompasses most of Bernalillo County and voting precincts in four other counties.
    State law allows a registered voter to cast a provisional ballot in the wrong precinct as long as it is in the county in which the person is registered.
The count in the 1st
    WILSON 104,863
    MADRID 103,376
    These were the totals as of Monday night. No new votes had been added to the tally since Friday. Still outstanding were provisional and "in-lieu-of" ballots.

E-MAIL Journal Staff Writers Trip Jennings And Jeff Jones