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US overrules puetro rico on election { December 3 2004 }

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From Orlando Sentinel

Puerto Rico candidate raps U.S. for meddling in vote
Aníbal Acevedo Vilá says a judge's decision about the election for governor was wrong.

By Ray Quintanilla
Sentinel Staff Writer

December 3, 2004

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- The candidate narrowly leading Puerto Rico's still-unsettled race for governor is charging the U.S. government with acting as a colonial ruler for seizing control of ballot counting in the protracted election.

A U.S. District Court judge's decision to step in and overrule Puerto Rico's Supreme Court on how to run the recount "tortures the island's residents and holds them hostage," said Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the Popular Democratic Party candidate who held a narrow lead in the election when ballot counting was suspended Nov. 2.

Since then, efforts to complete that tabulation and get a recount under way have become mired in legal wrangling and worker walkouts as the commonwealth's three political parties try to sort through approximately 2 million ballots cast in the election.

Federal involvement in the election has ignited passions on the island, with supporters of two of the three major parties decrying it as unwarranted and unwanted meddling in local affairs.

Earlier this week, 20,000 people protested outside the federal courthouse in San Juan to denounce the rulings by U.S. District Judge Daniel Dominguez.

The controversy centers on 28,000 disputed ballots that likely hold the key to whether Acevedo Vilá or Pedro Rosselló of the New Progressive Party moves into the governor's office. Puerto Rico's top court said the ballots should be counted; Dominguez blocked that order, saying he wanted to review them first -- effectively taking control of the disputed ballots and how they will play in the election.

"Efforts to delay or restrain the election process are impeding the recount from continuing," said outgoing Gov. Sila Calderón, who is a member of the PDP. "It's fundamental to our democracy that these votes be counted."

But not everyone on the island sees it that way.

The controversy has laid bare longstanding fractures in Puerto Rico's political landscape, pitting the PDP, which supports the island's current, semiautonomous commonwealth status, and the Independence Party, which favors full autonomy, against Rosselló's NPP, which calls for closer ties with the United States and eventual statehood.

Rosselló and the NPP say the federal intervention was necessary to ensure a fair election because the island's courts and elections officials can't be trusted to do so on their own.

Already, Rosselló said, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court unfairly sided with Acevedo Vilá by calling for 28,000 disputed ballots to be counted despite questions about their legality.

Rosselló insists he was elected governor and disputes allegations that he or his party operatives are stalling the recount.

Confusion on the floor of the Puerto Rico Elections Commission about that issue alone has caused two long interruptions in the recount. The first lasted six days, and counting stopped again on Wednesday.

With Dominguez off the island for a legal seminar in Florida, the count is in limbo.

Ruben Berrios of the Independence Party said the Elections Commission should defy Dominguez's orders -- to temporarily set aside the disputed ballots -- and count them all. Then a winner should be declared, Berrios said.

Thursday marked one month since the race for governor was thrown into dispute when ballot counting was suspended with Acevedo Vilá holding a 3,880-vote lead.

Most of the 28,000 disputed ballots are those on which voters marked the symbol for the Independence Party but then went on to check boxes beside the names of Acevedo Vilá as well as Roberto Prats, who lost his bid to become Puerto Rico's nonvoting member of the U.S. Congress.

Aurelio Gracia, president of the Elections Commission, said the confusion surrounding the so-called split ballots caused problems from the very beginning -- notably, he said, because the 500 workers charged with the recount are split among the three parties.

"They all are members of the parties, and they don't want to do anything that they believe is unfair to their party," Gracia said. "If we could only get people to take a step back and lower the tensions a little bit, I do think we can get this recount done without all the fighting."

The commission is now in the middle of its second prolonged delay since Nov. 2. The stoppages are often directed by hard-liners from all three parties who watch the recount from a second-floor perch. They signal orders down to the floor when disputes surface.

Juan Manuel García Passalacqua, a local historian and political analyst, said 50 years of party infighting surrounding the territory's political status doesn't go away easily, regardless of other issues that surface.

"Those of us who have been around a long time know this dispute isn't going to be resolved right away," he said. "You have hard feelings from the past that just won't allow it."

Those sentiments are rooted in the very different views of Puerto Rico's future -- whether it remains a U.S. possession, becomes a nation on its own or evolves into a state.

"Settle in for a long fight," he said. "You see, it's already taken over a month. Those old differences are not just going to go away."

Ray Quintanilla can be reachedat rquintanilla@orlandosentinel.comor 787-729-9071.

Copyright © 2004, Orlando Sentinel

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