By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua yesterday chipped three votes off Daniel Rivera’s 60-vote lead in their contest for mayor after election officials sorted through 57 provisional and absentee ballots and allowed 19 to be opened and counted.
Eleven went to Lantigua and eight to Rivera, reducing Rivera’s lead to 57 votes out of the 15,209 that have now been counted.
Other smaller pools of votes remain uncounted, including seven provisional ballots that were left unopened yesterday and the trickle of absentee ballots arriving from overseas, which have until Friday to arrive. At least five have arrived so far, including three yesterday, and nine more that were mailed to oversees addresses have not been returned, election officials said.
But the larger pool of provisional ballots were Lantigua’s best hope of making a significant dent in Rivera’s tiny lead short of a full recount, and the three votes they netted for the mayor last night were an unpromising start in his effort to reverse the result of Tuesday’s vote.
Lantigua did not attend the session, but sent a lawyer and several other top aides, including Economic Development Director Patrick Blanchette, who sat in a front row at the City Council chambers at City Hall where the ballots were examined. Rivera sat with two lawyers in another front row across the aisle. When it was over after more than four hours, he appeared buoyant in an impromptu press conference in the atrium outside the chambers and reiterated his call for Lantigua to concede.
“I call on the mayor to respect the judgment of a clear majority of voters,” Rivera said, referring to the 50.18 percent of the vote he now holds. “I invite him to join me in assuring a smooth transition and begin healing the city that I know he loves, too.”
Rivera also said it is “statistically impossible” that Lantigua could win a recount, but did not explain his math.
Lantigua’s lawyer, Sal Tabit, expressed disappointment that the provisional ballots narrowed the gap by just three votes, but noted that there still are “a number of questionable ballots out there.”
Among them, Maloney disclosed that two ballots were found atop a filing cabinet in the Election Division on Friday. He said he set them aside while he attempts to determine their validity.
Tabit waved off questions about whether Lantigua would concede or push on, including by asking for a recount. Lantigua has until Friday to request one.
“I’m not ready to comment until I can digest what happened this evening and talk to the mayor about it,” Tabit said.
A recount could provide several pools of votes to look for miscounts for Lantigua. Those include about 260 or so ballots that were hand-counted when machines jammed at two polling places and another 50 or 60 so-called blank votes that could contain marks the scanners couldn’t read but a human eye could.
A recount also would require election officials to consider ballots cast by voters who were on the rolls but whose eligibility was challenged at the polls. Challenged voters were allowed to cast their votes and have them counted, which could be discounted in a recount.
The next step comes Tuesday, when City Clerk William Maloney will consider the seven provisional ballots that he set aside last night to allow Election Division staff time to verify the eligibility of the voters who cast them.
Provisional ballots are filled out by voters who do not appear on the rolls, or are listed as inactive but can’t provide identification, or provide poll workers with an addresses different from those on their voting cards or present some other irregularity.
Last night Maloney ruled that about two dozen of the provisional ballots could not be counted, including those cast by people found to be living and registered to vote in Newburyport, Haverhill, Reading and other municipalities.
Other ballots tossed aside were cast by voters who still live in Lawrence but simply voted in the wrong precinct.
Most of the provisional ballots Maloney accepted were cast by voters who were placed on the inactive list because they had not voted in two previous elections and did not return census cards mailed to their home to verify their addresses. Maloney counted the votes of inactive voters who remained at the address they listed on their voter cards.
In every case, Maloney first ruled on whether a ballot should be counted based on the voter affidavit attached to a sealed envelope containing the ballot. The ballots he approved were removed from the envelope and put aside unread until later in the evening, when they were counted anonymously.
The decision about which provisional ballots to count was made by Clerk Maloney alone. Jurisdiction shifted to the Board of Registrars when the discussion turned to whether to count the three absentee ballots that should have been sent to the polls to be counted on Tuesday, but were left behind at the Election Division.
The board voted to count all three.