TOPICS > Politics

Mexico Begins Recount in Contested Presidential Election

July 5, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now the latest on that presidential election contest in Mexico.

Ray Suarez is just back from covering the voting.

Ray, welcome back.

RAY SUAREZ: Good to be here.

JIM LEHRER: First, lay out the situation right now, as we speak. What’s going on?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, at 8:00 this morning, Mexico City time, they began the second round of computation of the final vote. That first count came from reporting in from the polling places all around the country. But, in the meantime, those polling places had to send their ballots…

JIM LEHRER: These are paper ballots.

RAY SUAREZ: Paper ballots.

JIM LEHRER: Mmm-hmm.

RAY SUAREZ: They had to send them, bundled, with a report sheet on the bundle, saying, this is how many votes we have for president, senate, members of the congress. Here’s our report.

They were brought to 300 centers around the country, and now, polling place by polling place, in those 300 centers, they’re going through each bundle.

Efforts to count the paper ballots

JIM LEHRER: And they're only -- they're adding -- they're taking only the figure that is at the top of the bundle, right, that is on the front of the bundle? They're not -- they're not going through each ballot?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the law says that as long as the bundle doesn't look like it's been tampered with or any of the ballots have been removed from it, you can take the sheet and use the figures that are on the sheet.

But if it looks like the sheet has been changed since it was filled out or if ballots have been removed, you can then open it and do a hand count of everything in that packet.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Where does that process stand now?

RAY SUAREZ: They have counted just over half of the polling places in the country.

Now, in that first count, Felipe Calderon, the -- the candidate for President Fox's party, the P-A-N, the PAN, led by a very slim margin, about two-thirds of 1 percent to 1 percent.

Now, with about half of this recomputation done, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-wing candidate...

JIM LEHRER: Obrador, mmm-hmm.

RAY SUAREZ: ... is ahead by 2 percent, a swing, roughly, of 3 percent. So...

JIM LEHRER: And how many votes are involved in that swing?

RAY SUAREZ: Several hundred thousand.

JIM LEHRER: Several hundred thousand.

RAY SUAREZ: So, certainly there's time, depending on where those districts are that have reported so far...


RAY SUAREZ: ... in the 56 percent, to end up with a result very close to what they had in the first count.

JIM LEHRER: Is there -- is there a deadline for -- for this phase, when they have to get it all together and say, all right, now, this is where we are, who is ahead...

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it's not expected to take more than two days in total for this part of it, the presidential part of it.

The law says, when they begin counting at 8:00 this morning, they have to continue until they're done. And that means they can't stop. They can't take a break. They can't turn the lights off and put it aside, knock off and come back tomorrow. They have got to do the president, then the senatorial vote, then the congressional vote.

JIM LEHRER: The people who are actually doing the counting, who are they? Are they government employees, party representatives?

RAY SUAREZ: The people who did the first count that was sent in Sunday night and Monday morning were volunteers from around the country, about a million of them, drawn from the various different parties.

But now these are government functionaries doing the tabulating of the ballots and these ballot bundles.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Next step, they have come up with a total, and, whether it's Calderon or Obrador, what -- what happens then?

Candidates can challenge vote count

RAY SUAREZ: Well, at that point, it's going to be certified by the Independent Electoral Commission: We have a winner. This is who we think won.

At that point, it's up to the candidates if they want to challenge the results, and they open a process in which they challenge this vote.

JIM LEHRER: And is there a process for doing that, that is part of the law, that -- you mentioned, one of your reports from Mexico City, that 1 -- if there's a less -- 1 percent or less difference in the -- in the final total, the other candidate -- the candidate who is the loser can automatically get a recount? Is that correct? Did I hear you correctly?

RAY SUAREZ: In specified districts.


RAY SUAREZ: He has to, in this case, say, I think there were -- there is either evidence of fraud, or evidence of mistabulation, or an accusation that there was this problem with the tabulation. And it has to be specific. It can't just be, I think it's not right, and let's do it again. It has to be a specific accusation and a geographically specific place.

Paper ballots create problems

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you this, Ray, a difficult question. But based on your observations and your reporting while you were down there, and what you have read and all the reporting you have done since you have been back, is this a legitimately close election, or is somebody suggesting that there was widespread fraud for either one of these candidates?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the interesting thing is, the -- the exit polls came in very, very close. The final public polling before Election Day had them close, but not that close, and they had Lopez Obrador ahead.

He took that, that evidence, that -- that exit polling said that -- that the voters of Mexico said that they voted for him and said: Hey, wait a minute. I think there are missing ballot here, ballots that weren't counted.

And the Independent Electoral Commission said, oh, no, that's -- that's just not the case. But, on further digging -- drilling down into the results, they realized, yes, we didn't count in our original tallies these sequestered ballots, ballots that, at the time, were not counted because there was a disagreement at the polling station about what a voter really intended to do. Now...

JIM LEHRER: So, now they have gone back and looked at those, right, and put them back in the mix?

RAY SUAREZ: They're looking back at some of them.

JIM LEHRER: Some of them, OK.

RAY SUAREZ: But -- but the thing is, when -- any time that you use paper ballots in an election, there are ballots that just aren't countable, because you have -- you have created millions of pieces of paper. And, sometimes, the X is in the wrong place or the -- the signature is in the wrong place, or the name is in the wrong place.

Yes, that happens. But the rate of it happening is very high in this case, 6 to 7 percent of the total ballot.

The story is far from being over

JIM LEHRER: That is high, sure.

Obrador has said that he won this election, and he -- he is going to take this all the way, and has even suggested he is going to put some of his people on the streets if he -- if it doesn't go his way. Is that -- is that a serious threat?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, he has a past, Lopez Obrador does, of using direct action and mobilized citizens to protest, to shut down streets and government buildings and that kind of thing in the past.

And they are keeping that sort of in their hip pocket. But the problem with the PRD is that it's -- it's sort of a -- more like a family of parties than -- than a party.

JIM LEHRER: That's his party, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: His party is the PRD, but he's got two other parties in his electoral coalition, and they're a range, from, you know, just a hair left of center, all the way to really radical proposals for the future of the economy and politics.

And now is when that coalition is going to have to make some tough decisions about just how far they want to take this. It could be street action, or it could be playing it straight, you know, pulling up your tie, knotting up your tie, and heading to court.

JIM LEHRER: And the bottom line is, this story is a long way from being over.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, they are going to report within the next two days. They don't have to certify this election finally until September 6. And like the United States, there's a long transition period between election day and inauguration day.

JIM LEHRER: OK. And we will stay on it.

Thank you, Ray.