- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

BOSTON (AP) — A bitter election dispute that has intensified political divisions in Puerto Rico went before a federal appeals court yesterday with arguments over how votes should be counted in the U.S. territory’s still-undecided governor’s race.

More than 100 demonstrators rallied outside the courthouse, carrying signs in English and Spanish that included “No federal intervention in our local election” and “Dignity here and there.”

The case before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is whether the island’s Supreme Court or a U.S. district judge in San Juan should have jurisdiction over thousands of disputed ballots.

Preliminary election results from Nov. 2 showed pro-commonwealth candidate Anibal Acevedo Vila of the Popular Democratic Party narrowly ahead of the pro-statehood contender, former Gov. Pedro Rossello of the New Progressive Party — 48.38 percent to 48.18 percent.

The three-judge panel that heard arguments yesterday gave no indication when it would rule, but attorneys for both candidates said they expected a decision soon because the inauguration of a new governor is scheduled for Jan. 2.

On the ballots in question, voters marked an “x” for the tiny Independence Party, but they also put marks next to the names of Mr. Acevedo Vila and Roberto Prats, the Popular Democratic Party’s candidate for nonvoting delegate to the U.S. Congress.

Mr. Acevedo Vila’s supporters say Puerto Rican law allow voters to mark one party — such as the Independence Party, an underdog in most elections because of its size and platform — in addition to candidates from other mainstream parties.

Mr. Rossello, who served as governor from 1993 to 2001, wants the ballots disqualified, insisting it is impossible to determine the voters’ intent.

“This is a controversy that should be adjudicated in the courts of Puerto Rico. That has been the tradition,” Mr. Acevedo Vila said as he headed into the courthouse. “What my opponent is trying to do is disenfranchise thousands of voters who voted in the election.”

Last month, Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court and U.S. District Judge Daniel Dominguez both ordered an immediate recount, ruling in separate but overlapping cases. However, the courts made contradictory rulings on dealing with the ballots favoring Mr. Acevedo Vila, with the Supreme Court ordering them counted as valid and Judge Dominguez ordering them counted but not added to the final recount tally until he rules on their validity.

Mr. Acevedo Vila’s attorney, Charles Cooper, told the justices the disputed ballots have already been validated by both the Puerto Rican Election Commission and the island’s Supreme Court. He said federal courts should not be involved in the dispute.

Mr. Rossello’s lawyer, former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who represented George W. Bush in the disputed 2000 presidential election, said Jude Dominguez has jurisdiction to decide whether they are valid.

The case has intensified the divisions in the Caribbean territory of 4 million residents who have fought for decades over whether the island should remain a U.S. possession or become the 51st U.S. state. A tiny minority wants independence.

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