LAWRENCE — Down just 60 votes out of 15,190 cast Tuesday, a shaken but characteristically defiant Mayor William Lantigua yesterday began laying the groundwork for a recount while stopping short of demanding one.
The process began at 9 a.m., just 14 hours after the polls closed, when lawyers for Lantigua and for challenger Daniel Rivera arrived at the Election Division in the basement of City Hall to pour through 54 affidavits filed by voters whose ballots were set aside Tuesday because their names could not be found in the voter rolls or because of a discrepancy in the records.
As their work stretched past noon, Rivera arrived with about 100 supporters and a throng of Boston media at Campagnone Common across from City Hall, where the two-term city councilor reclaimed victory and promised to fight any challenge to his fragile and still unofficial margin of victory.
Rivera — leading Lantigua by four-tenths of 1 percent — also took a first step toward forming an administration by announcing he would begin naming his transition team today.
“We fought for every vote,” Rivera told his supporters at the rally outside City Hall, speaking within easy earshot of Lantigua's third-floor corner office. “We'll protect every vote. And we'll make sure this election does not get stolen.”
The 54 provisional ballots alone would not be enough to reverse Tuesday's result, but they could whittle Rivera's tiny margin and place Lantigua within striking distance as absentee ballots still in the mail arrive at City Hall.
Absentee ballots postmarked by Tuesday and mailed from oversees have until Nov. 15 to arrive, although the deadline for ballots mailed within the United States is several days shorter, City Attorney Charles Boddy said. There is no estimate for how many absentee ballots may be in the mail.
There's also a third wild card that could help tip the election: voters whose eligibility was challenged Tuesday even though they were on the rolls were allowed to cast their ballots and see them counted, but the ballots could be discounted if Lantigua demands a recount. The challenged ballots were marked before they were fed to scanners at the polling places but were not otherwise recorded, so their number will remain unknown unless a recount occurs.
Sal Tabit, a lawyer for Lantigua, was optimistic.
“Let's assume for a minute that a vast majority of the provisional ballots, if they're allowed to be entered, go to the mayor,” Tabit said, describing a best-case scenario for his client. “Let's say at the end of the day, you're not down 60 votes, but you're down 20 votes. Then challenged voters, and the possibility of some votes not being counted because of jammed machines” could deliver Lantigua a second four-year term.
The official process begins at 4 p.m. tomorrow, when the provisional ballots will be retrieved from the basement vault at City Hall, where they are being guarded by police around the clock, and delivered to the city's Board of Registrars.
The registrars will not review the ballots themselves, which remain sealed, but will review the attached affidavits filed by the 54 voters affirming they are registered voters. The registrars also may hear arguments from Tabit and David Torrisi, the former state representative representing Rivera, about which of the ballots should be counted and which discarded.
Just three of the board's five seats are filled, including one held by Ana Medina, who campaigned actively for Lantigua and contributed $400 to his re-election effort.
The other two seats are held by City Clerk William Maloney, and Laurence Collopy, a part-time security guard. Lantigua has nominated two other men to fill the remaining vacancies on the board, including Francisco Surillo, the estranged brother-in-law of Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, who managed Lantigua's 2009 campaign. The City Council has not acted on the nominations.
Lantigua and Rivera can challenge the registrars' ruling on any of the 54 ballots. Challenges would be heard in Superior Court.
Secretary of State William Galvin said his office, which maintains a statewide registrary of voters, is aiding Lawrence's Election Division in attempting to “authenticate or disqualify” the provisional ballots. He speculated that some registered voters who do not appear on the rolls in Lawrence may have registered at a bureau of the state's Registry of Motor Vehicles, which could have misfiled the form.
Galvin also disclosed that his staff had a more substantial presence in Lawrence Tuesday than he previously acknowledged. Beyond the team of observers he sent, Galvin dispatched supervisors to polling places who could have overridden decisions by local poll watchers and other officials, including Maloney.
Galvin said the supervisors remained on the sidelines and did not intercede, including when Maloney removed a poll worker found campaigning for a candidate.
“We were there to provide guidance, assistance, and if there was an actual dispute, we would have enforced our prerogative over the city,” Galvin said. “But it wasn't necessary. The city was very cooperative. We think it was an excellent election for the City of Lawrence.”
Galvin said he would have no authority to oversee or intercede in a recount if Lantigua requested one, rebuffing an invitation from Rivera. But he said he would monitor any recount.
Lantigua has 10 days to request one.
Galvin said he already has sent the forms candidates need to fill out to request a recount to several municipalities where there were close races Tuesday.
He said the municipalities that will get the forms include Lawrence, where he said “we all know there's going to be a recount.”
In the meantime, City Clerk Maloney may release the vote tallies for the city's 24 wards today, after a delay City Attorney Boddy said was caused by the added diligence to other matters required by the extremely tight vote.