Ballots left behind in polling places, voters impeded from casting their vote and hasty and imperfect counting are among the hundreds of complaints filed this week with the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) regarding the Feb. 5 election and ongoing manual recount of votes.
Because of the quantity of complaints, as well as the pace of the hand count, it could be the week of Feb. 27 before the Tribunal declares a victor in the historically close presidential election, TSE magistrate Luis Antonio Sobrado told the press this week.
Although National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate Oscar Arias held a lead of a few thousand votes after the preliminary vote count, Citizen Action Party (PAC) candidate Ottón Solís pulled ahead this week by more than 10,000 votes in the manual recount. However, TSE employees counted first the province of San José and Alajuela, both of which Solís carried.
Arias supporters remain confident the former President (1986-1990) and Nobel Peace Prize laureate will regain the lead when the rural provinces, which Arias swept, are hand counted.
In the meantime, both candidates are apparently taking advantage of the downtime after a hectic campaign season – Arias by reading Dostoevsky, Solís by celebrating Valentine’s Day with his wife – and meeting with community leaders to address the country’s next four years.
“Never have so many complaints beenpresented,” Sobrado said, pointing to more than 150 claims filed by PAC alone.
Individual voters have also filed hundreds of claims of problems Election Day through the citizen hotline 800-ELECTOR.
Costa Ricans have for decades prided themselves on their democratic and transparent electoral system. Despite the recent numerous complaints, many people, including the Catholic Church and the National Rectors Council, announced this week their trust that the TSE will announce the correct winner in due time.
But Citizen Action legislator Rodrigo Carazo, who is serving as a one of the official recount observers representing PAC, says it may be time to take a second look at the country’s electoral system.
“It is a system that has deteriorated, that has eroded,” he said.
Carazo has been one of the most vocal observers during the manual counting process, making more claims of irregularities every day. Each party is allowed one observer at each of the five tables where votes are being recounted.
Carazo says the errors he has seen during the manual recount are emblematic of a systematic problem in Costa Rica’s electoral system.
“A system that should be perfect is not, and the Tribunal realizes this and it frightens them; but they can’t find a way to accept that in such a close election these issues are very serious,” he told The Tico Times. According to PAC complaints, the materials from some polling stations are missing ballots or have excess ballots. Specifically, they cite situations in which ballots were found under desks in two schools that were used as polling stations the Monday after the elections.
TSE president Oscar Fonseca minimized questions regarding the found ballots, calling such issues “normal” in the course of an election. Sobrado agreed most of the mistakes highlighted by the complaints are the result of “human errors, not anything deeper.”
However, he added that these situations are being investigated by the TSE to determine the causes. Investigators are also looking into uncertainties regarding the whereabouts of a bag of ballots as it traveled from the canton of El Guarco, Cartago north to the TSE headquarters in San José.
“We don’t know what happened, but we want the TSE to make clear what happened. Costa Ricans are telling us, ‘pay attention to this,’” Carazo said.
PAC’s executive committee plans to meet with Tribunal officials today to discuss some of these issues.
As far as the recount process, one of the primary problems Carazo said he has observed is ballots arriving from polling places without the attached list of people who voted. In these situations, TSE employees are correctly adding up the votes, but they have no roster to compare the totals with to indicate whether they received the appropriate number of ballots, Carazo explained. This has happened with dozens of polling places, he said.
“The problem is in the quality of the scrutinizing,” Carazo said.
However, Liberation observer Fernando Berrocal said that in the counting he has observed, he has seen no such problem. He suggested PAC members are desperately trying to find more votes where they don’t exist, and in the end are only hurting the process.
“PAC is damaging the democratic institutions of the country,” he said. “With these declarations that there is no transparency, that there is electoral fraud, they are doing serious damage to Costa Rica and the Supreme Elections Tribunal. This is politics, and politics from a bad school.”
As TSE magistrates and employees work 12 hours a day to count one by one the more than 1.5 million votes cast, they are simultaneously trying to address these and other complaints.
Disputes between observers from different parties regularly arise at the counting tables, where strewn coffee cups, rolls of Halls and bags of marshmallows serve as evidence of the long days of labor.
If an observer questions the validity of a ballot, it is usually solved at the table – the other observers may agree that it should be voided, or they may pass the question on to the magistrate heading the table, or, if debate continues, the ballot may be passed around the room to other magistrates for a vote.
Most questions regarding ballots are solved this way. However, other, more formal complaints can be filed and addressed during regular meetings between the magistrates.
By addressing the complaints as they arise, the magistrates hope to complete the manual recount within the 30 workdays they are allowed, Sobrado said.
“However, we are taking our time with the analysis of complaints,” he added.
Once the recount is complete, parties have three days to present more claims of irregularities. These too must be investigated before an official winner can be declared.
“Before releasing the official results, this Tribunal must resolve any complaints formally presented to us,” Sobrado said, adding that once the official declaration of a winner is made, it is final and no further appeals are possible.