U.S. Media Should Butt Out of Mexico's Election

On a morning interview I did on Texas statewide commercial radio, the host started the program by saying: "In a cliffhanger election, the conservative candidate Felipe Calderon has beaten the left-wing firebrand Lopez Obrador by 1 percent. But Lopez Obrador is demanding a recount and threatening street protests."

Later, CBS Radio called to set up an interview to discuss the "Calderon victory and Lopez Obrador's street protests."

Whoa. Time out! Before we allow Rupert Murdoch to call the Mexican election, let's cover the basics here:

Mexico's election is indeed a cliff-hanger, but there are no official results. Mexico's Federal Election Institute (IFE) has indicated that its preliminary computer tallies, which gave Calderon a 1 percent lead, were insufficient. On Tuesday, it admitted that 2.58 million additional ballots still need to be counted. So let's repeat: There are no official results or official count estimates.

The Federal Election Institute (IFE) had hoped to announce the winner on Sunday night using a sophisticated system of sampling from around the country, known in Mexico as "PREP." This system of compiling and releasing preliminary, unofficial election results has come under fire for causing confusion and potential unrest.

Jonathan Roeder reported Wednesday in Mexico's daily El Universal that "despite repeated reminders that PREP results are unofficial, Calderon has claimed they show he is the clear winner and that Lopez Obrador should step aside, while Lopez Obrador has highlighted the system's inaccuracies to suggest the contest was rigged against him."

Lopez Obrador has not yet suggested there is fraud, but expressed concern about uncounted ballots from 16,000 polling areas that were not included in the PREP calculations. The head of the IFE, Luis Ugalde, confirmed that 2.58 million votes were set aside because of "irregularities or inconsistencies" in addition to an estimated 1.5 million uncounted ballots.

Here's how things were supposed to work: First, on Sunday, after polls closed at 6:00 p.m., ballots would be counted on location.

I witnessed this remarkable event in the city of Miahautlan, Oaxaca, as election officials opened up ballot boxes on the city's central plaza. After separating the ballots into piles for each candidate, election observers from each party and election officials counted the ballots together, out loud. Visualize 20 voices together saying "Treinta y cinco, treinta y seis." Unfortunately, such transparency still doesn't exist in every town in Mexico, especially in regions controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed Mexico for 71 years prior to the 2000 election.

Second, the count from each polling area was put onto a tally sheet that all witnesses signed. IFE staffers in a sample of polling areas called their results into IFE headquarters for the PREP, a scientific sampling could have declared a possible winner. The IFE never released the results of their "quick count" because it was too close to call.

Third, the ballots were bundled and sealed in special packets and transported, usually under armed guard, to one of 300 IFE district offices. At this moment, that is where the sealed ballot packets are.

Over the ensuing hours, more tally sheets were reported into the central IFE office. But by 11 p.m. Sunday, the election was still too close to call using the PREP system. Both leading candidates, with their own exit polls and results called in by election workers, had numbers showing their lead.

The process of counting ballots begins today, Wednesday, at the local district offices. The winner, according to IFE officials, could be announced before Sunday. But the process could require more time, depending on the number of ballots counted by hand.

Regional officials will first review tally sheets, computer results and polling data from over 130,000 polling areas. If there are formal complaints about specific areas, they will open sealed ballot packets and do hand counts. The good news is Mexico's next president won't take office until Dec. 1, and the IFE is not required to legally certify the election until Sept. 6. Everyone is counseling calm.

The U.S. media, however, have seized upon the Calderon 1 percent lead number and begun coronation proceedings. They've implied that it's all over, except "firebrand" Lopez Obrador and his street mobs won't concede. This is highly irresponsible.

The U.S. media should butt out of the Mexican election until it can get its facts straight on the actual process and the historical context of Mexico's evolving democracy.

Lopez Obrador has said he will honor the results of a fair election. He has a right to demand the IFE conduct a formal count -- and he has the right to freedom of expression, including protest, if he believes he has been defrauded of the presidency. He is no stranger to being defrauded, including having his 1994 victory stolen in the Tabasco state governor's race. (AlterNet has also posted a bit of the history of Lopez Obrador's experience with stolen elections.)

The Mexican election system has come a long way in two decades. Mexico's systems for tracking votes and thwarting fraud are now more sophisticated that the U.S. system. The system is far from perfect but includes many features the United States would benefit from, such as voter registration cards and voter lists with photos.

In the coming days, a number of election observer groups will be issuing reports on the conduct of the election. This will greatly inform the legitimacy of the voting process. In the meantime, the U.S. media should not impose our U.S. model of media-called elections on our southern neighbor.

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