The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE — Democrats are preparing to examine about 17,000 provisional ballots that will determine a winner in New Mexico’s tightly contested presidential caucus, as party officials come under sharp criticism for how they managed the troubled election.
Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson says he’s “deeply disturbed” by problems and long lines at caucus sites, where volunteer workers were overwhelmed by greater-than-expected turnout on Super Tuesday.
“As this very close election shows, every vote is important and every vote must count. Anything less is unacceptable. In addition, the delay in results was extremely disappointing,” Richardson said Wednesday. “I have expressed my frustration to Democratic Party Chairman Brian Colon.”
Colon said he had not met with nor talked to Richardson.
New Mexico is the last of 22 states that held Democratic primaries and caucuses Tuesday to report a winner.
With 183 of 184 of precincts reporting late Wednesday, Clinton held a lead of 1,092 votes — 67,921 votes compared with 66,829 for Obama, according to preliminary results posted on the New Mexico Democrats web site.
When the provisional count is done, it may mean only a gain of a few delegates for the winning candidate. Clinton and Obama are vying for 26 of New Mexico’s 38 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Twelve so-called super delegates are not bound by caucus results.
The caucus, which was run by the state’s Democratic Party, was riddled with troubles — with reports coming from across the state on of exasperated voters waiting in lines for up to three hours and polling sites running short of ballots.
Mara Lee, state director for the Clinton campaign, said hundreds of people had called a campaign hotline to voice concerns about the caucus. Lee said the state party was unprepared.
“What my concern is mostly that the party system broke down yesterday and I don’t want New Mexicans to be punished,” Lee said.
Colon took responsibility for the problems.
“We absolutely miscalculated and I apologize,” Colon said. “It’s a tragedy when folks are not afforded the opportunity to vote.”
Some said the snail’s pace of declaring a winner in New Mexico is not unusual.
“As we got more and more results in, it seemed to get tighter and tighter, and that’s not an anomaly in elections in New Mexico,” said Laura E. Sanchez, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “We saw that in 2004. We saw that in 2000.”
Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico who planned to observe the provisional ballot verification process, predicted a drawn out wait.
“Our state is so competitive at a federal level that we have to count the votes and we have to count them by hand and we have to verify voters and that’s time consuming, especially on the provisionals,” she said.
The examination of the provisional ballots will be closed to the news media but will be attended by representatives from both the Obama and Clinton campaigns, Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver and Atkeson, party officials said.
“To make sure we have transparency in the process, both campaigns are present,” Colon said.
Provisional ballots are given to voters who show up to the wrong site, whose names are not on registered voter lists provided by the state or those who requested an absentee ballot, but signed an affidavit saying they did not return it.
Statewide, provisional ballots accounted for 12 percent of all votes cast, Colon said.
Democratic party officials could not say how long verifying the provisional ballots, which will start Thursday, would take. They said the process was delayed Wednesday after campaign officials asked them to wait so that their representatives could attend, Sanchez said.
Colon said accuracy, not speed, will be the priority in the verification process.
Results from one precinct were not available late Wednesday. In Sandoval County, one precinct mistakenly mixed ballots and figures from two congressional districts, so the Democrats were waiting to release those results until they sorted out the figures, Sanchez said.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign set up a hotline for New Mexico voters so they could voice their concerns about the caucus. Lee said they had heard from hundreds of voters by Wednesday.
Of the 17,077 provisional ballots that were cast, three-fifths were from counties in which Obama was leading — with most of those in Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties.
The large number of provisional ballots came in part because of the higher-than-expected turnout and fewer voting sites than in a state-run primary or general election.
Santa Fe attorney John Pound, co-chairman of Obama’s New Mexico campaign, said he wishes Democratic Party officials had extrapolated from the crowds at two Obama rallies Friday that turnout might be higher than they had anticipated.
“It would have saved a lot of headaches had it been done,” he said.
Four years ago, the state party, the campaigns and the news media deluged would-be voters with information about the caucus — because it was the first ever in New Mexico. This year, the state’s caucus only became competitive after Richardson dropped out the presidential race on Jan. 10.
That left other campaigns only about three weeks to quickly set up shop in New Mexico and hastily organize get-out-the-vote efforts. Party officials said they relied on the campaigns to do the bulk of voter education because of the party’s limited funds.
Last-minute campaign visits — Obama on Friday and Clinton on Saturday — also contributed to the high turnout, party officials said.
Associated Press Writers Felicia Fonseca and Barry Massey contributed to this report.