Suprises continue in Mexican election

This morning’s Los Angeles Times headline on the Mexican election was “Now the Leftist Has the Lead in Mexico.” This comes after days of reporting that Calderon was winning the election, by a small margin.

Imagine my surprise, when just after reading that article in the print version of the paper to see on the LA Times website a new story, “Mexico Conservative Wins Election By Narrow Margin.” How quickly things change in a very, very close electoral contest!

The print story this morning, whether or not it got the outcome right, had some excellent details on how the Mexican election officials were conducting their recount. Here are the details from the earlier story, based on their reporting from two vote counting locations in Mexico City:

At the District 10 office in the San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood of Mexico City, sealed white boxes that had been in the custody of the Mexican army since Sunday’s vote were cut open beginning 8 a.m. Wednesday. The tally sheets were read aloud before representatives of the five parties in the race and entered into the electoral system’s computerized database.

The seven-member district electoral board in the overwhelmingly PAN neighborhood voted down all but one of the PRD’s six appeals to recount ballots in individual boxes.

Federico Martinez, the PRD representative at the District 10 counting table, objected. He insisted that one ballot box the electoral board refused to recount contained two ballots more than reported on the tally sheet.

Word of the conflict filtered outside the building, riling the small crowd of protesters.

“Multiply those two votes by thousands of polling places and they add up,” said Lidia Andrade Rodriguez, 43. “We’re going to fight for those two votes.”

The seven election officials conducted the count around a large table, in the presence of party representatives and a score of independent observers. The scene bore a faint resemblance to the examination of Florida’s infamous hanging chads.

Safeguards built into the system for transparency were evident. The table was piled high with copies of the tally sheets kept by each party’s poll watchers as a check on the official sheets pulled from the ballot boxes. The laptop computer on which the tallies were entered was projected onto a wall for everyone to see.

Across town at the Tlalpan district counting office, the PRD challenges were more effective. The electoral board there accepted its first seven requests for recounts, resulting in a gain of 310 votes for Lopez Obrador.

Each recount was a mini-drama, conducted by Marineyla Huerta, a formidable economist serving as the electoral board chairperson, and watched intensely by dozens of party representatives and observers in the crowded room.

Wielding a green box cutter, Huerta opened the seventh box and separated the ballots by candidate preference on the table before her. Then she proceeded to count each pile, slowly and out loud.

As she leafed through the pile for Lopez Obrador, she accidentally counted two ballots as one.

“Wait! You’re miscounting!” someone shouted. A PRD activist with a mini-cam filmed the scene from up close.

Huerta checked and conceded her error.

“I’ll start over,” she said.

The recount confirmed that the box had contained 11 ballots more than were listed on the tally sheet. Ten of those votes were for Lopez Obrador.

“How interesting, no?” Huerta said.

This sounds very similar to vote recounts we’ve seen in the United States, though the process by which ballot boxes are recounted seems somewhat subjective. It seems that at the counting stations, ballot boxes are opened for recounting only when the election officials at the counting station notes some irregularity or discrepancy associated with the paperwork for the particular ballot box. From the LA Times coverage, and other stories I’ve read, it seems that representatives of the major parties are on hand at the various vote counting stations, and they essentially try to lobby the election officials to recount ballot boxes, based on allegations of irregularities. It seems that it is up to the election officials whether to recount the ballot boxes (if they deem the irregularities have merit?). And from the two counting stations the LA Times reporters wrote about, it does seem that some election officials are more willing than others to recount ballot boxes.