N.M. Dems Get Apologies But no Winner

By: AP
By: AP

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Three days after New Mexico voted, Democratic officials offer apologies and finger-pointing — but have no winner. Hillary Rodham Clinton holds a slight lead, but the state is still counting 17,000 provisional ballots given to voters because of long lines and a shortage of ballots.

All that's really at stake are bragging rights to another popular vote victory. Only one delegate hangs in the balance.

Based on results so far, Clinton has 13 delegates and her rival Barack Obama has 12. The popular vote winner will get another one.

With nearly 140,000 votes counted so far, Clinton holds a roughly 1,100-vote lead over Obama.

Democratic Party officials, who ran the election, warn that the count could last well into next week, right up until Feb. 15, the date they have to certify the results. It took until late Thursday for the Clinton and Obama camps to agree on a process for tallying provisional votes.

New Mexico Democrats call their contest a caucus, but it's not like Iowa's caucuses where voters gather in gyms, churches or meeting rooms, divide into groups for each candidate, try to attract more support from other groups, and then count each group. Rather it more closely resembles a "firehall primary" — a primary with shorter voting hours and fewer voting sites than would be found in traditional state primaries.

It was a mess: Overwhelmed polling places with long lines, some up to three hours. Too few ballots. Confusion over where to vote. Bad weather in the north. In Rio Rancho, one of the state's largest cities, a single polling location where 1,900 people remain lined up at 7 p.m on election night.

The man in charge, Democratic Party Chairman Brian Colon, has apologized repeatedly: "We absolutely miscalculated and I apologize. It's a tragedy when folks are not afforded the opportunity to vote."

The finger-pointing has begun: Colon is receiving a firestorm of criticism — including from Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, a former presidential hopeful who said he was "deeply disturbed" by the problems. Partly because he was a candidate himself until mid-January, Richardson himself never got involved in helping plan or promote the caucus, as he did in 2004, the first year New Mexico tried it.

"The governor's disappointed and I am, too," Colon said Thursday. "I can assure you that I'm even more disappointed than the governor."

With the delegates nationwide closely split between Clinton and Obama, each state battle becomes increasingly important. In New Mexico on Super Tuesday, the pair vied for 26 of New Mexico's 38 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Twelve so-called super delegates are not bound by caucus results.

In the caucuses, New Mexico awards Democratic delegates proportionally, based on statewide vote totals and on the results in individual congressional districts.

In two of the state's three congressional districts, Clinton and Obama equally split an even number of delegates at stake. In District 2, which had an uneven number of delegates, Clinton won the additional one by outpolling Obama by 55 percent to 41 percent, according to unofficial results.

Nine statewide delegates were at stake. Obama and Clinton have evenly split the eight delegates already awarded, with one remaining to be assigned to the statewide popular vote winner.

Political observers say high turnout caught party officials by surprise. Last-minute visits by Clinton and Obama may have boosted turnout — as did Richardson's Jan. 10 withdrawal from the race. He would have been heavily favored to win New Mexico; his departure threw the race wide open.

The problems have caused Richardson, who pushed for an early February caucus in 2004 to give the state more clout, to ask New Mexicans to rethink whether they even want an early nominating contest.

"I believe that New Mexico voters — Democrats and Republicans alike — must decide whether they want to preserve their early voice in the process in the future, and what form it should take," he said. New Mexico Republicans will choose their presidential nominee in a June primary.

On Friday, about 40 volunteers were huddled around computers, scanning registered voter signatures into computers in preparation for the count of the provisionals. Also on hand: independent observers and representatives from both campaigns.

Although the stakes are smaller, the sight of people hovering over ballots might be reminiscent of Florida's "hanging chad" paper ballot debacle of 2000, but there are differences.

Brian Sanderoff, a political observer and pollster, said the hanging chad debate came down to a judgment call on bits of paper. "Here, I don't think that's the case," he said. "To deem a vote being bona fide is not a judgment call here. You're either a registered Democrat or not."

That doesn't mean subjective decisions won't enter into New Mexico's count. When a voter's intent is not clear because of the way the paper ballot was marked, the result could be decided by judgment calls.


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