Almost a week after Sunday’s presidential election, Costa Ricans still don’t know who their next President will be, and they may not know for almost a month as Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) officials tediously recount each of their votes by hand.
As of Monday, when 88.4% of the more than 1.5 million votes cast Sunday had been tallied, National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate Oscar Arias was ahead of Citizen Action Party (PAC) candidate Ottón Solís by a mere 3,250 votes.
“Never before has the manual count been so important,” TSE President Oscar Fonseca told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.
“This is a process that no other country uses and a process that’s been criticized, but this (year’s unique situation) confirms to me that the manual count rule exists exactly for cases like this in which the difference between candidates is very small.”
On Tuesday, TSE officials began the manual recount that, by law, follows the initial count conducted by poll workers at each precinct and sent electronically to TSE.
They started counting the 712 polling places not included in the preliminary results released Monday afternoon, and began releasing the counts daily in charts of 20 or more pages. They finished counting all 712 precincts yesterday afternoon, but released the results too late for The Tico Times to tally the charts. As of Wednesday, however, Arias maintained his lead.
Under the Electoral Code, TSE has 30 days to manually count all votes and announce the winner, Fonseca explained, and though he had originally said the TSE aimed to finish in 15 days, he later said the slow pace of the counting made it impossible to set a date.
There are a “wide range of possibilities” for the outcome of the manual count, Fonseca said.
In the unlikely event of an exact tie, Article 138 of Costa Rica’s Constitution states that the oldest candidate wins. In this case, Arias’ 65 years would beat out Solís’ 51.
Controversy over Tallies
The media received mixed messages from TSE this week as the Tribunal made quick decisions on releasing counts in this historically close election.
Tuesday at noon, Fonseca told reporters TSE hoped to finish manually counting the first 712 precincts and release numbers at 6:30 p.m.
However, later that afternoon, Citizen Action Party (PAC) vice-presidential candidate Epsy Campbell presented TSE with a letter asking that the Tribunal not release any preliminary counts and wait until the manual recount was complete so as not to cause chaos by prematurely announcing a winner.
Campbell’s letter was at least somewhat effective in changing the Tribunal’s plans. On Tuesday night, rather than receiving a new vote tally showing which candidate was ahead, TSE gave journalists the results of the ballots from 250 polling places officials had counted that day (462 less than hoped for) in chart form and left them to do the math themselves.
TSE will continue releasing a new tally at the end of each day on its Web site, www.tse.go.cr, until all remaining ballots are counted, said TSE spokeswoman Ana María Jiménez. However, the site has had difficulties all week.
Arias and Solís have reacted differently to this week’s events. Arias wants the counting finished as soon as possible and said if he were President of TSE he would ask workers to continue counting past 8 p.m., even if that meant not sleeping, so that the winner is known as soon as possible, according to La Nación.
Solís, however, adopted a more patient approach as he waited for results and spent time with family.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Transparency International Costa Rica requested Tuesday that independent observers be allowed “to guarantee that the manual scrutiny is as transparent as possible to Costa Rica’s citizens.”
The organization’s president, Roxana Salazar, said outside observers play the important role of watching how officials resolve complex cases of unclear ballots that arise and make sure the officials make the right decision.
However, TSE remained adamant in its stance that by law, only fiscales, observers from the country’s political parties, are allowed to be present.
“We have no doubt that the process will be completely transparent,” Fonseca said. “In the case of unclear votes, the Magistrate at each table decides.”
Room for Improvement
Some say the tedious counting that’s forcing the country to wait for official results could have been avoided if plans to computerize the election system had materialized.
Hector Fernández, TSE Director of Electoral Programs told The Tico Times switching Costa Rica’s pen-and-paper ballots to electronic voting machines would facilitate logistics and counting ballots and cut down on printing costs. They would also make voting easier for blind people and others with physical disabilities to vote privately, without aid.
Officials originally had hoped to have half of Sunday’s vote be electronic, but this plan fell through because of budget cuts, Fernández explained.
Although Brazil offered to lend Costa Rica the voting machines, $2 million for a publicity campaign fell through.
“For this to be successful, you have to make a strong investment in educating voters, allowing them to get accustomed to the idea,” Fernández said.
Tribunal authorities now hope to have a pilot electronic voting program in place for the municipal mayoral elections in December.
For election updates throughout the week, visit www.ticotimes.net/daily.htm