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Recount Delayed in Puerto Rico

By Ray Quintanilla
Orlando Sentinel
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page A11

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A court-ordered recount in the Puerto Rico governor's race came to a halt this week when hundreds of Election Commission workers refused to begin counting 28,000 disputed ballots.

Faced with the prospect of a strike by some of the workers, election officials sent them home until Monday -- meaning the already-delayed election between Anibal Acevedo Vila of the Popular Democratic Party and Pedro Rossello of the New Progressive Party could take even longer to settle.

Supporters of candidate Pedro Rossello demonstrate outside the Puerto Rico Election Commission in San Juan. (Andres Leighton -- AP)

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Daniel Dominguez ordered election officials not to count the disputed ballots until he is able to fully review whether they are valid -- a decision overturning an earlier Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruling. Dominguez took a swipe at the commonwealth court, saying he has taken jurisdiction over all lawsuits pertaining to the still-incomplete Nov. 2 election.

Dominguez's ruling followed what appeared to be a revolt inside the Election Commission's offices, where about 150 workers, supporters of Rossello, walked out shortly before noon.

"There was some confusion on the floor where the recount was taking place," said Aurelio Gracia, president of the Puerto Rico Election Commission. "Some workers who are members of the New Progressive Party did not want to count the [disputed] ballots, even though they have been instructed to do so by Puerto Rico's Supreme Court," Gracia said. "I expect to have this straightened out so the process can begin on Monday."

As a result, all 500 of the commission's employees were dismissed for the day, Gracia said. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, the recount will remain shut down through the weekend.

Most of the workers who walked out joined the 100 or so pro-statehood New Progressive Party members who gather outside to picket the Election Commission offices every day.

The pro-commonwealth party's Acevedo Vila received preliminary certification as the winner after counting was suspended on election night, showing him with a 3,880-vote lead. As of Monday, with 40 percent of the uncounted ballots added to their overall totals, Rossello was leading with 49 percent of the vote over Acevedo Vila's 47.5 percent. Much of the rest went to the Independence Party's candidate.

Most of the 28,000 disputed ballots are those in which the voter marked the symbol for the independence party and then went on to check boxes alongside the names of Acevedo Vila and Roberto Prats, who lost his race to become the island's non-voting delegate to Congress.

Rossello called the mixed ballots "spoiled" and turned to federal court two weeks ago to have them thrown out. Acevedo Vila, who stands to benefit from the mixed ballots, asked the federal judge to have them counted because similar ballots have been counted in past elections.

Puerto Rico's Supreme Court ruled last weekend that the mixed ballots are legal and ordered election officials to begin counting them right away.

Acevedo Vila called Dominguez's ruling Tuesday "contrary to Puerto Rico's election laws" and said that "the judge's decision has the same effect as disenfranchising thousands of voters across the island."

The Election Commission began a recount Monday under orders from Dominguez. Before workers were sent home Tuesday for not counting the mixed ballots, only 149 of the island's more than 7,000 polling stations had been reviewed, election officials said.

Adding to the high emotions, local television stations have begun showing a video of Rossello and Dominguez embracing and smiling at each other before the election as commentators raise questions about their long friendship.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company