FITIAL TENTATIVE WINNER IN CNMI ELECTION

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Hofschneider wants absentee ballots counted first

By Gemma Q. Casas SAIPAN, CNMI (Mariana Variety, Nov. 24, 2009) - BENIGNO R. Fitial is about to become the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Island’s (CNMI) first governor to be re-elected since 1985, and the first to receive a majority mandate since 1993.

Fitial of the Covenant Party defeated Rep. Heinz S. Hofschneider by 501 votes in Monday’s runoff election, but the Republican camp said it’s not yet over until more than 1,000 absentee ballots are counted on Dec. 7.

Not all of these ballots will be returned, which makes it mathematically challenging for Hofschneider to overcome Fitial’s lead.

Fitial, 63, got a total of 6,313 votes or 52 percent of the votes cast while the 52-year-old Hofschneider received 5,812 or 48 percent.

During the four-way Nov. 7 gubernatorial election, Hofschneider led Fitial by eight votes.

None of the candidates secured at least 50 percent plus one of the votes cast, and this led to Monday’s runoff as required by a law enacted after Fitial’s victory in 2005 when he won 28 percent of the votes, edging Hofschneider by 84 ballots.

Assistant Attorney General Meaghan Hassel-Shearer on Monday said about 1,800 absentee ballots were mailed and more than 100 emergency ballots were sent out.

Fitial got 390 absentee votes during last night’s counting while Hofschneider received 275.

The rest of the absentee ballots are due to arrive on Saipan by Dec. 7.

The Commonwealth Election Commission hand-counted the runoff votes, saying its counting machines are not programmed to tabulate only one race.

Supporters of the Covenant Party cheered at their headquarters on Saipan Middle Road as the commission finished tabulating all the votes after 1 a.m. Tuesday.

The governor delivered a speech before his supporters who then sang a birthday song to first lady Josie Fitial who will celebrate her natal day on Nov. 25. The governor will mark his 64th birthday on Nov. 27.

The governor, however, did not issue a statement to the Variety after Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos’s special legal counsel, Teresa Kim, instructed him not to say anything.

"Do not comment governor," she said in Chamorro.

He gave statements only to reporters from the Saipan Tribune and KSPN while Kim and other Covenant Party supporters blocked this reporter from entering the press conference.

She said the Variety’s election coverage was "biased."

Juan S. Tenorio, treasurer of the Heinz and Arnold team, said it would be tough to beat Fitial’s 501-vote lead but he remains optimistic about their ticket’s chances of winning.

"I think it was a good election. Unfortunately, Heinz did not make it. Let’s just hope that there would still be some votes for him," he said.

He wished Fitial and Inos well and expressed hope that their team will serve the public’s interest.

Hofschneider left their headquarters in As Lito before midnight while his running mate, Speaker Arnold I. Palacios, stayed on until all the votes were counted.

[PIR editor’s note: "As Lito" is a village in Saipan where the Saipan International Airport is located. Saipan is the largest island and capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.]

Their supporters too were hoping their candidates would make it when the absentee votes are finally counted.

"It ain’t over till it’s over," one of them said.

Tenorio said the GOP [Republican Party] is proud of its efforts to help support Hofschneider’s gubernatorial bid.

"It was a long and clean campaign, and we did stick to the issues," he said.

Election Commission Chairwoman Frances Sablan said the voter turnout was good even though Monday was not a holiday for private sector employees.

She said 12,181 votes were cast of which 13 were considered overvotes, 37 were blanks, four were spoiled, and two were exposed.

Polling places opened at 7 a.m. until they closed at 7 p.m. Police Capt. Lawrence Camacho, the overall in-charge of security during the runoff, said there were no reports of violence.

"There were some hecklings in [almost] every precinct but it was generally a peaceful election," he told the Variety.

Election Commission Executive Director Robert A. Guerrero said his office did not receive any reports of violence during the election.

"It was peaceful," he said.

The commission first counted the absentee votes it had already received. Fitial got 390 compared to Hofschneider’s 275.

Hofschneider topped Tinian where he got 453 votes while Fitial received 373.

When votes from San Antonio or Saipan’s Precinct 1A were counted, Hofschneider maintained his lead, winning 340 votes against Fitial’s 256.

But San Vicente or Precinct 1B delivered 89 more votes to Fitial for a total of 935 compared to Hofschneider’s 846.

Fitial also beat Hofschneider in Koblerville or Precinct 1C where he got 443 votes while his GOP rival got 372.

Overall, Fitial had a 76-vote lead against Hofschneider in Precinct 1, a GOP bailiwick, for a total of 1,634 against the Republican’s 1,558.

In Precinct 2, the ruling party’s stronghold, Fitial narrowly beat Hofschneider — 496 votes to 466.

In the Northern Islands where 149 voters were registered, Fitial took 91 while Hofschneider got 47.

In Kagman or Precinct 5, Hofschneider won against Fitial by only six votes — 926 to 920.

Shortly before 1 a.m., Fitial was already leading by 461 votes against Hofschneider after the Precinct 3A voters or those from the Carolinian village of Oleai delivered him 534 votes. Hofschneider got only 182.

Hofschneider won in Garapan, or Precinct 3B, getting 885 votes to Fitial’s 780.

In Tanapag, or Precinct 4A, which, like Oleai, has a sizeable Carolinian population, the CNMI’s first Carolinian governor received 307 votes, further increasing his lead to 560.

Hofschneider got only 208 from the same precinct.

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