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Computers Will Watch, Tally Mexican Vote : Election: State-of-the-art systems are in place. But opposition politicians and the public remain skeptical.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A computer crash has haunted President Carlos Salinas de Gortari for six years. It has cast doubt on the legitimacy of his administration, and now it is undermining confidence that Sunday’s presidential election will be clean.

On election night, 1988, with opposition presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in the lead, the computer counting the votes went down, taking with it any hope that Mexicans would believe the official polling results. Those results gave Salinas 50.7% of the vote.

Ironically, the Mexican government is counting this weekend on two sophisticated computer systems to lend credibility to the final tally in what is expected to be this nation’s closest presidential race in more than six decades.

A $730-million computerized voter registration roll will determine who is allowed to vote. Another multimillion-dollar system with multiple backups will tally the votes.

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“If technology can guarantee clean elections, these will be,” said U.S. Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) after a recent tour of the electoral computer center.

Opposition politicians say that’s a big if. And citizens are equally skeptical. A recent survey by the citizens group Civic Alliance found that 63% of those interviewed believe ballots will be altered, ignored or switched by the computer system. Pollsters interviewed 4,790 Mexicans in 16 states.

Still, the technological effort is impressive, from a state-of-the-art IBM network to remote input terminals--similar to automated teller machines--that would be the envy of most retail banks. Polaroid built a plant in Queretaro, 130 miles from the capital, to manufacture voter credentials with photos, thumbprints and even hidden bar codes. The bar code reproduces the information on each credential, providing an additional check on its validity.

The multinational corporations involved--U.S., Japanese and French--are understandably nervous about participating in such a close contest in a country with such a checkered electoral history.

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“We thought a lot about it before deciding to participate,” said Rodrigo Guerra, general director of IBM de Mexico. “We were exposing our reputation. We continue to expose it. But one cannot just work in a country on only the easy projects.”

The 4-year-old voter registration task demanded a system that could store information on more than 40 million voters in such a way that it could be retrieved easily, either for updating or by politicians who want to verify it. Said Guerra: “This would be the largest on-line data base that we had ever created. We were starting from nothing.”

IBM based the system on its RS-6000, a computer that is used for everything from connecting suppliers to recording department store sales to university workstations and government offices.

At its peak, 30,000 people from the government, IBM and subcontractors were working on the project.

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Of course, none of this makes for a trustworthy voter registration list in a country with a tradition called “the carousel.” That custom entails party faithful registering in many precincts and spending election day driving ‘round and ‘round, voting at each of them. This time, computers are supposed to flag such duplication.

All but one of the nine political parties have approved the list, including the National Action Party (PAN), whose candidate was in second place in most polls taken last week. Based on a test with equipment that duplicates the government computer center, PAN officials have said they believe the list is more than 95% reliable.

However, the single holdout--the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), whose presidential candidate is Cardenas--has raised embarrassing questions. For example, the PRD has found dozens of people listed at the same nonexistent addresses.

“This is a good faith voter registration list,” explained one registration official. “We record the information the way citizens give it to us. Sometimes that creates errors.”

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Once voters signed up, government officials went to great lengths to get them their credentials. Villagers in Ibarra, deep in the Chiapas jungle, had to walk 15 hours to the nearest polling place in the midterm elections three years ago. This time, their voter credentials were delivered to the village months ago--making it easier than the voting itself.

Despite the high-tech voter list and sophisticated credentials, balloting itself will not be computerized. Voters will mark their choice by hand, fold the ballot and drop it into a plastic box--a clear one so that everyone can see that the box was not stuffed.

Technology does not reappear until the polls close and it comes time to tally the votes. This has traditionally been the period of “alchemy,” when votes for the opposition are spun into votes for the ruling party, like lead into gold.

Delays in reporting from rural areas, traditional PRI strongholds, often raise suspicions. “Mexico is not Belgium,” said one election official. “We have telecommunications problems.”

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Those problems tend to cause differences between early returns--from the cities--and final results. That appears to be the reason for the 1988 computer crash.

The first returns are from cities, where the opposition parties tend to be stronger and poll vigilance is stricter. When the PRI vote comes in from rural areas, Mexicans are skeptical.

“What happened in 1988 was that (officials) promised to give returns precinct by precinct,” Arturo Nunuz, general director of the Federal Electoral Institute, the agency that runs elections, told a group of foreign reporters recently. “The flow arrived first from Mexico City and the state of Mexico and it was not representative of the nation. Obviously, they opted to crash the system.”

No precinct-by-precinct results were ever released, and the ballots were later burned.

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This year, no results will be announced until at least 15% of precincts are reporting, election officials decided. The details of the plans for the vote count have been guarded closely, and election officials would only discuss it on condition that their names would not be used. About 11,000 technicians were involved in setting up the vote-counting system.


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