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Ballot Burning Time in Ol’ Mexico

“As the first anniversary approaches of Mexico’s tumultuous July 2nd 2006 presidential election in which rightist Felipe Calderon nosed out leftist Andes Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) by .58% of 41.5 million votes cast amidst allegations of spectacular fraud, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), the nation’s maximum electoral authority that was responsible for staging the much-questioned balloting, is poised to burn the evidence.
Since the election, Lopez Obrador, who insists he won and says he is the legitimate president of Mexico, has demanded that the 130,000 ballot boxes (“urnas”) be opened and the ballots counted out one by one. Despite having been rebuffed by the nation’s chief electoral tribunal, codenamed the TRIFE, which declared Calderon the winner last September 5th, AMLO has been joined by a number of eminent journalists and private citizens in his crusade.

In their quest for the truth, the journalists, led by Rafael Rodriguez Castaneda, director of the long-lived left weekly Proceso, have sought access to the ballots via Mexico’s Freedom of Information law, one of the most progressive in Latin America. Rodriguez and others model their petitions on the aftermath of the highly redolent Florida U.S.A. 2000 presidential debacle which that distant neighbor nation’s Supreme Court awarded to George Bush amidst charges of rampant flimflam. A subsequent independent ballot by ballot recount by the New York Times, the Miami Herald, and other major media concluded that democrat Al Gore would have been the winner if Bush dirty tricks such as barring thousands of Afro Americans from voting were factored into the total tally.

Proceso filed its petition for access to the ballots with the Mexican Supreme Court soon after the election and despite repeated turndowns, continues to pursue its demands. Meanwhile, the IFE has barred the door to a review of the ballots, arguing that Mexico’s FOI only applies to government documents and the ballots are not “documents” but rather “expressions of electoral preference,” a position that John Ackerman, a specialist in election law a the National Autonomous University (UNAM) writing in the current issue of the Mexican Law Review, characterizes as “metaphysical.”

On the other hand, the eight-judge panel sitting as the TRIFE concedes that the ballots are indeed documents but are simply “unavailable” to public review. In signing off on Calderon’s victory, the TRIFE readily conceded that the election had been seriously marred by myriad anomalies but could not or would not quantify their impact on the final vote count.

The nearly 42,000.000 ballots utilized in the July 2nd vote taking are currently under guard by thousands of Mexican army troops in the republic’s 300 electoral districts. Ackerman, who would like to see the material transferred to the General Archive of the Nation located in a former Mexico City prison, the Lecumberri Black Palace, considers that the negatives of the IFE, the TRIFE, and their colleagues on the Supreme Court to grant FOI access to the ballots, makes Mexico’s vaunted Freedom of Information Act a “hollow” document.

In legal briefs filed to challenge Proceso’s request, lawyers for the IFE’s General Council argue that opening up the ballot boxes would constitute “a danger to national security” i.e. that the process could result in “public disturbances.” The IFE excoriates journalists like Rodriguez for pressing the case for accountability, intimating that their probes are designed to tear down the electoral system: “(the plaintiffs) attack fundamental human values” and put the state “in danger.” In the IFE’s opinion, the plaintiffs “should be stripped of their political rights” (Ackerman.)

Actually, the IFE’s refusal to revisit the votes and its intentions to burn the ballots as is contemplated by Mexican election law, may well spark “public disturbances.” After Calderon was declared the winner last July, Lopez Obrador mobilized millions in protest, the largest political demonstrations in the nation’s history. Tens of thousands of supporters encamped in the streets of Mexico City, shutting down the capital for seven weeks.

Proceso and other plaintiffs have good reason to be suspicious about what is inside the ballot boxes – thousands of which were illegally opened by IFE operators in the weeks following the balloting despite judicial constraints on violating the seals of the “urnas.” Although the TRIFE refused to order a vote-by-vote recount, it mandated a partial review of about 9% of the total 130,000 “casillas” or polling places, (11,000 ballot boxes.) The results of the TRIFE recount, which have never been officially published, are instructive. According to Ackerman, Lopez Obrador picked up 10,000 plus votes on Calderon, marginally reducing his already narrow victory to 233,000 votes. In the recount alone, slightly more than that number – 250,000 votes – were annulled by the TRIFE, which eliminated whole polling places where the numbers could not be explained.

AMLO’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and two election allies provided their own ballot-by-ballot analysis of the partial recount in the face of TRIFE stonewalling.

In 31% of the recounted precincts, less votes were cast than the number of ballots allocated to the polling place yet no blank ballots were returned to the IFE as the law mandates, suggesting vote stealing by Calderon partisans. In 33% of the casillas under review, more votes were cast than the number the IFE allocated, suggesting ballot-stuffing in about a third of the recounted polling places.
Nationally, the PRD found anomalies in 72,000 out of 130,000 polling places, 63%. While some of these may have been minor arithmetic errors, a shift of 1.8 ballots per ballot box would have given the election to Lopez Obrador even by the IFE’s dubious count.

But there is good reason to be skeptical about the IFE count. For example, in six states won by AMLO – including Tabasco, his native state and that of the third candidate in the race, the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Roberto Madrazo – 250,000 more votes were cast for senators and congressional representatives than for president.

Meanwhile in seven states claimed by Calderon, 80,000 more votes were cast for president than for senators and deputies.

Extrapolating from this morass, AMLO’s chief election statistician Claudia Schienbaum calculates that Lopez Obrador won the presidency by more than a million votes. The only way to prove or disprove this conclusion, Ackerman insists, is to exhume the ballots.

Other electoral memorabilia has recently come under scrutiny. A spot by spot accounting of how the political parties spent millions of state-subsidized pesos for television and radio ads, contracted by the IFE with a Brazilian company (IBOPE) that specializes in such arcane matters, reveals that tens of thousands of Calderon hit pieces aimed at AMLO between January and July 2006 may have been financed by national and transnational corporations, a violation of campaign financing laws. Of 757,000 spots now stored on 35,000 CDs (it would take a single auditor 248 years to listen to them one by one), who paid for 231,000 of them is masqued. Calderon’s spots, designed by U.S. political consultant Dick Morris, a champion of right wing causes, are suspected to have been underwritten by two business councils that group together such U.S.-based mega-corporations as Wal-Mart and Halliburton, both of which have significant interests in Mexico.

Under Article 254 of Mexico’s much-amended electoral code, the COFIPE, all election material including the ballots must be destroyed when the electoral process is concluded. But operating on the Yogi Berra theorem that Mexican elections are “never over until they are over”, when the electoral process actually ends is up for grabs. When the new president is declared the winner? When he is sworn in? Or when all the appeals have been exhausted? The final determination has yet to be made by the IFE General Council, that has twice now postponed incineration of the ballots.

The COFIPE’s injunction to destroy ballots once a presidential election has been concluded is open to loose interpretation. In elections where there were few disputes, there is apparently little hurry to torch the “material expressions of voter preference” – the ballots from Vicente Fox’s relatively calm 2000 election victory remain in tact albeit under lock and key. But in presidential contests where vote stealing was patent, Mexican election authorities have been in a big rush to eliminate the evidence.

In 1988, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the candidate of an impromptu left coalition, is thought to have upset the PRI’s Carlos Salinas – he was leading by a sizeable margin when the vote counting computers mysteriously crashed. Reports of stolen ballot boxes were widespread and tens of thousands of partially burnt ballots marked for C├írdenas were found smoldering in garbage dumps and floating down rivers. Two months after Salinas was inaugurated, in January of 1989, the PRI, which then controlled congress as well as the electoral machinery, in connivance with the right wing PAN, Felipe Calderon’s party, ordered the military to burn the ballots.

Under the threat of a new round of angry demonstrations by AMLO’s supporters and with one eye on the approaching first anniversary of this still-disputed election, the IFE General Council voted once again May 30th to postpone destruction until all appeals are exhausted – Rodriguez’s latest appeal to the Supreme Court remains pending. Another appeal, filed with the InterAmerican Human Rights Court by independent journalist Delia Angelica Ortiz could also delay destruction.

How to dispose of the 1571 tons of electoral evidence that now take up 2261 cubic meters of space in IFE warehouses perplexes members of the General Council. Incineration is not the only option and councilor Teresa Gonzalez argues that burning the ballots would contribute to air pollution and increase global warming. Carting the materials off to a sanitary landfill would not be an ecological solution and given the toxicity that the ballots have radiated could contaminate water sources.

Instead, Gonzales advocates going green and shredding and recycling the ballots. The recycled paper would then be donated to the National Text Book Commission to print textbooks “for Indians” (sic.)

The concept of converting the tainted ballots into text books tickles barber Lalo Miranda as he trims a U.S, reporter’s mangy beard in his stand at the Pino Suarez market in the old quarter of the capital. “If you ask me this sounds like a text book case of fraud” he chuckles.

JOHN ROSS is recovering from six months on the road flogging “Zapatistas! – Making Another World Possible” in Gringolandia, and contemplating what book to write next. Write him at johnross@igc.org with further information.