SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Pro-statehood candidate Pedro Rossello asked a federal court Thursday to toss out 28,000 ballots from the Nov. 2 election, a move that could return the controversial former governor to the island’s top office with a decisive victory.

At issue is whether voters who split their ballots – most favoring the pro-commonwealth candidate for governor – followed instructions. Arguments surrounding the ballots dominated the first day of discussions during a U.S. District Court hearing that may determine the outcome of the island’s tight gubernatorial race.

By The Orlando Sentinel

“The votes are clearly spoiled,” William Sherman, an attorney for Rossello, argued before Judge Daniel Dominguez. “The instructions clearly say there can only be two markings on the ballot, not three.”

But the Puerto Rico’s Election Commission’s lawyers said ballots exactly like the ones in dispute have been counted for more than 16 years without question.

“These ballots are not being disputed by any candidate other than Mr. Rossello,” said Pedro Delgado, a lawyer representing the election commission.

The U.S. District Court called the hearing after Rossello, the New Progressive Party candidate, sued the election commission alleging fraud. He also asked the court to order the election commission to carry out a recount concurrently with a review of voter tally sheets now under way.

A third part of his complaint asks the court to halt outgoing resident commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila, who has a preliminary certification as governor-elect, from beginning a transition to the governor’s office.

Most of the disputed ballots have a mark placed under the Puerto Rican Independence Party insignia. The ballots also contain marks next to Acevedo Vila’s name and that of his Popular Democratic Party running mate Roberto Prats.

Preliminary results indicated Acevedo Vila ahead by fewer than 4,000 votes, or about 0.2 percent of the total vote.

About 500 election officials continue to review sheets containing the tally of votes from more than 7,000 precincts, a process meant to decide whether a vote-by-vote recount is needed. Officials have said a recount could start Dec. 10 if the tally sheet review confirms the margin was less than 0.5 percent.

But Dominguez challenged a battery of Rossello lawyers to show why a federal court should become involved when the complaint centers on events under the jurisdiction of local courts.

Sherman said he thinks the island’s election commission violated federal laws because it failed to mail out absentee ballots within the time frame spelled out in a 1993 federal law. Election commission president Aurelio Gracia acknowledged mailing out 2,522 absentee ballots between Oct. 14 and Oct. 30, much later than the deadline.

Gracia, through his attorney, blamed Tropical Storm Jeanne for the delay, saying the island didn’t have power for more than a week. Mail service was interrupted for longer than that. So far, 1,730 absentee ballots have been returned, and all of them have been counted, he said.



(c) 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-18-04 2136EST


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