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Recount drama drags on in Puerto Rico

Boston hearing set in governor's race

SAN JUAN -- Dominoes clacking hard against tabletops punctuate the dragging hours of downtime in the little tent city growing at the entrance to Puerto Rico's drab, concrete elections warehouse.

The party faithful and the political junkies can be excused for taking breaks from sign-waving and sloganeering -- the recount they have come to monitor has turned into an endless ordeal of stops and starts, all-night court hearings, and finger-pointing bluster. Nearly 1 months since the Nov. 2 election, Puerto Rico does not know the identity of its next governor, and this island, where some feel like second-class citizens dominated by a colonial power, is seething with longstanding tensions over federal control.

The recount has drawn all-too-obvious comparisons to the Bush vs. Gore saga, although lawyers here say the sheer volume of courtroom time for the Puerto Rico election contretemps far exceeds the judicial time expended to decide the US presidential race four years ago. Puerto Rico has added considerable flourishes to recount lore: Handwriting specialists are on call to study the pencil-marked X's that signify votes on its antiquated ballots. Vote counters have staged walkouts and threatened to strike. Allegations of a ruthless gang rigging the votes of prisoners, who are allowed to vote, have been floated.

Political activists have begun to fret that the mess will not be cleaned up in time to inaugurate the new governor and new Legislature next month, leaving the island without a functioning government. Regardless, Anibal Acevedo Vila, the pro-commonwealth candidate who led on election night, has done his best to appear the confident winner, even taking his children to the governor's mansion -- an ornate 16th-century fort in Old San Juan known as La Fortaleza -- to choose their bedrooms.

The emotions of the case are stoked almost daily by the rhetoric of a monumental tug of war between Puerto Rico's Supreme Court and the island's US District Court, which could begin to be untangled in a federal appeals court hearing scheduled to begin tomorrow in Boston. US District Judge Daniel Dominguez, who said here that ''I am not a happy camper" when he seized control of the recount from the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, called the case ''the biggest federal confrontation with a state in the history of this country."

Judicial hyperbole aside, the recount has huge ramifications. Pedro Rossello, the pro-statehood candidate, has promised that he will deliver Puerto Rican statehood within four years. His strategy, he said, will be to sue the US government by making a civil rights claim using the same legal principles as the school-desegregation cases of the 1950s. He would argue that Puerto Rico is a victim of ''geographic segregation" because it has no voting member of Congress and no electoral votes in presidential elections.

Rossello, a retired pediatric surgeon who served two terms as governor from 1993 to 2000, is plagued by ethics questions because several dozen members of his administration and campaign staff have been indicted on corruption charges.

''What we have is the person who was the head of the most corrupt government in the history of Puerto Rico trying to steal the election," Acevedo Vila said in an interview at his campaign headquarters here.

Rossello, in an interview at his campaign headquarters a few miles away, countered that his opponent ''hasn't stolen the election yet, because it isn't over yet. But the intent to steal the election is certainly there."

Complaints about judicial favoritism are everywhere. Each candidate, voters half-joke, has his personal judge. When Rossello was governor he supported Dominguez's nomination to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton. Photographs of Rossello and Dominguez hugging at a judicial conference have aired repeatedly on television news programs, although the former governor dismissed allegations of favoritism with a wave of his hand. At the same time, Rossello's political backers point out that Acevedo Vila was a law clerk for the chief justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, whose rulings have favored the pro-commonwealth candidate.

In the meantime, hundreds of election workers are poring over 1.9 million paper ballots. And the recount has added at least one new word to the island vocabulary: pivaso. The pivaso has turned into Puerto Rico's butterfly ballot.

A pivaso is a ballot split between the pro-commonwealth party -- whose emblem is Puerto Rico's traditional flouncy peasant hat, the pava -- and the tiny PIP party, which advocates complete independence for the island. Traditionally, votes cast for the pro-commonwealth ticket, the Popular Democratic Party, were known as pavasos. Hence, a vote split between the PIP and the party of the pavasos became a pivaso.

The question at the center of the recount is whether the estimated 28,000 pivaso ballots are legal under Puerto Rico's unusual election law. Rossello's legal team says they are not and should be thrown out; Acevedo Vila's lawyers say they are and should be counted.

Whichever side wins the pivaso argument probably will win the election. Rossello's campaign also is clinging to the possibility that the recount will produce enough of a change for him to not only overcome Acevedo Vila's 3,800-vote margin on election night but also establish a large enough margin of victory of his own to make the pivaso ballots irrelevant.

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