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Tight Race Puts Mexican System to the Test

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The Associated Press
Monday, July 3, 2006; 3:07 PM

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's struggle against a history of spectacularly dirty elections has inspired an elaborate and costly vote-counting system meant to squeeze out fraud.

That system is undergoing the ultimate test this week in a bitter, dead-heat presidential race pitting two parties with powerful memories of being robbed in past elections. Both claimed victory on Monday, and many feared political turmoil if a major party rejects the official result.

With preliminary returns nearly complete, Felipe Calderon of the ruling National Action Party held a lead of about 1 percentage point over Andes Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

The result is a challenge to the credibility of Mexico's recently reformed electoral system _ one that has turned Mexican elections from a national disgrace into an internationally admired model.

"The Mexican system is much more transparent" than the U.S. system, said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and a former Virginia state legislator.

Mexico has a single voter registry, a uniform photo identity card for voters and a national election law, he said, whereas "in the U.S., you have this crazy quilt of 50 state laws."

Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute is legally independent of the government, while in the U.S., partisan state officials tend to oversee the system _ something that contributed to controversy over the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

The Institute also provides taxpayer financing for political campaigns based on their vote totals in past races, an effort to even the playing field. Mexico sharply limits private campaign contributions.

Paired with the Institute is an independent Federal Electoral Tribunal, known by its initials as Trife, whose word on all election disputes is final.

Confidence does not come cheap. The IFE's budget for 2006 was about $1.1 billion.

Some 25,000 observers monitored Sunday's voting and reported few problems. But the tight race focused attention on the counting system.

Workers at thousands of polling places sealed ballot boxes Sunday evening, attached reports tallying the votes on paper ballots inside and sent them to the 300 district centers. Preliminary returns so far were based on those figures, transmitted informally to Mexico City.

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