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Bernalillo County Expects Vote-Count Delay

By Dan McKay
Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer  15 October 2004

    Bernalillo County Clerk Mary Herrera has some advice for candidates: Don't have your victory parties until the day after the Nov. 2 election.
    That's because the tally of absentee ballots— expected to be about one-third of all votes— probably won't be available until the morning after the election.
    "I've been telling (candidates), 'Seriously, don't be sitting there having your victory party on Tuesday night,' '' Herrera said in an interview. " 'It's best if you plan it Wednesday night or afternoon.' ''
    Her staff is expecting about 75,000 people to vote absentee this year— far more than the 52,000 tallied in 2002.
    The crush of paper ballots could leave the nation waiting on Bernalillo County to determine the expected close presidential race. New Mexico has five electoral votes, and Bernalillo County is the state's most populous county.
    "If we should have an unbelievably close race at the national level, then it would not be inconceivable that the nation would be waiting on Bernalillo County absentee votes," said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc.
    Al Gore beat George Bush in the 2000 election by 366 votes in New Mexico, the closest contest in the nation.
    Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron and Herrera have discussed seeking court approval for rules that would speed up the vote-counting. They disagree over which one of them should seek a court order.
    Each absentee ballot is enclosed in two envelopes to protect voters' privacy. Herrera and Vigil-Giron want workers to be able to open at least the outer envelope before Election Day.
    Proposals to allow for that haven't made it out of the Legislature, Vigil-Giron said.
    Having two envelopes for each ballot means election workers must deal with hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper.
    "It's going to be a nightmare for Bernalillo County," Vigil-Giron said.
    Under current election rules, workers cannot begin opening the envelopes containing absentee ballots until the morning of Election Day, Herrera said. The ballots are then fed into two optical-scanning machines to tally the votes.
    The machine tally probably won't be available until 5 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3, Herrera said. In 2002, it was finished about 2:30 a.m., she said.
    Even after the machine results are released, workers will still have to hand-tally perhaps 7,500 absentee ballots that are rejected by the machines. Those results should be done later Wednesday.
    Other election results will trickle in with s throughout Election Night, Herrera said. She predicted the results for ballots cast at precincts on Election Day and ballots cast at early voting sites should be finished around midnight.
    But those votes aren't necessarily adequate to predict the winners in close campaigns.
    Absentee ballots have tended to favor Republican candidates. In fact, two years ago, the absentee results were enough to push several Republicans over the top in close races.
    Ashleigh Thompson, press secretary of the state Republican Party, said the party will be on hand to watch the election work.
    "We understand the extra pressure Mary Herrera is under to determine which votes are fraudulent and which are legal," Thompson said. "Due to the large numbers of absentee ballots, we expect the election results to stretch into the evening and possibly the morning. We're planning to be right by Ms. Herrera's side during the process."
    Gov. Bill Richardson has urged county clerks to be prepared to provide quick, accurate results.
    Late absentee totals "could be a concern if the races are as tight as they appear to be," Richardson spokesman Billy Sparks said. "The people deserve the right to have accurate and timely results."
    State Democratic Chairman John Wertheim said Herrera should be given the resources to get the job done quickly and accurately.
    "It's important the counting be done properly," he said.

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