Sunday, March 28, 2004

Elections in Venezuela? You mean, votes are actually going to be counted?
Part 3: the great scam of the electoral system

Sunday 28, March 2004

The worry of accurate ballot counting is present in any democracy. Some have rather simple systems. The French for example have one separate election for everything. When you go to a French ballot office you are sent to a table which has neatly stacked piles of cheap small pieces of papers with the names of the candidates or the list printed on. You take one of each, an envelope, go to the voting booth, place your preferred paper inside the envelope, throw the other in the garbage and go to drop your envelope in the ballot box.

In the United States things can be significantly more complicated as Election Day decides a significant amount of officials, and often has a few referendum questions. Some states have put big machines with all sorts of levers that people are supposed to pull. One big lever will print the complete ballot. None of these systems is safe, as can be seen for the recent Florida debacle. In France tales of ballot stuffing are still reported on occasion.

In Venezuela, a rather illiterate country in 1958, balloting was done once every five years, for all offices, from a single list, giving a new meaning to "winner take all". You were given all sorts of colored papers and you would pick your favorite color to put in an envelope and voila. Ballot stuffing was quite a problem. When elections became more complex as local elections were held separately, the system tried to modernize itself. Electronic counting came in 1998, and was wildly decried as being prone to cheating, event though Chavez won. Electors were given a huge piece of paper and a marker. With this one they were to fill up a few spots in front of their choices (still framed in colors, incidentally). That semi hard paper was then put through a scanner that registered and counted the votes.

During Chavez term, it seems that some electoral fraud indeed took place. Numerous court challenges have been brought forward and some elections have been declared as impossible to audit! This is all resting in peace in courts while the putative fraudulent winner has been ruling the district these past 4 years.

This system, not too good but perhaps subject to improvement, has been changed by the current Electoral Board, CNE, whose actions are certainly not above suspicion given the track record so far. By a 3 to 2 vote (guess who were the 3 yes votes!) a new system has been approved. Even more complex! These are the new steps.

1 You are given an electronic board that looks a little bit like the big piece of semi hard paper given to you on past elections. This board is connected to a small computer like feature. You press your choices where once you had to mark them...

2 On the screen you choices can be seen. If you agree, you touch something on the screen and you ballot is entered. If you do not agree, there is something that you can press to start again.

3 Once you ballot is entered on the screen, the computer prints a small piece of paper. You check if what is printed corresponds to what you entered. If yes, you drop that small piece of paper in a box. This will be the box to audit the election if needed.

4 The result of that particular polling station is sent via phone lines to Caracas where it is hoped that the results are tabulated within minutes from the closing of the poll stations.

Now, I am not an expert but I can detect plenty of places where fraud can happen. In the same order:

1 and 2 This might be OK, but who is to tell that favorable votes are not entered "twice"?

3 This is where it becomes quite interesting. Two cases.
Case 1: Imagine that you are in an allegedly pro Chavez rough neighborhood, say, El 23 de Enero. You vote against all of Chavez candidates. But your printed paper says that you voted for all of Chavez candidates! Are you going to make a stink knowing full well that leaving the precinct you will be branded as anti Chavez?
Case 2: Imagine that you are in an anti Chavez neighborhood. You vote for all the pro Chavez candidates. Then you keep your printed paper with you or drop a blank one or a pre-printed one in the box. Later the results are challenged and, lo and behold, the electronic tally does not match the paper tally! What will happen? Which tally will be declared valid?

I can come up with more "cases" but right now it should be clear that it is quite possible to cheat with the new system, in particular if the poll station is sloppily run. A few well chosen targets could change the result in areas where a close result is expected.

4 This is really the weakest link! With all the illegal taping of phones taking place in Venezuela, it is not unreasonable to think that the results from a few centers will be intervened this way, in particular if a particular center is not selected for audit.

It is clear that an endless series of confrontations on electoral fairness are waiting ahead, in particular with a CNE that has lost all credit with the opposition. Not to mention that the Constitutional Court will review whatever electoral complaint it feels like reviewing.

There are ways to minimize these problems but I am worried that the opposition so far has not been addressing these issues more forcefully. With all the problems that are already besieging us, and a delinquent administration that will go to any length to preserve as much power as possible, the pressure on cheating will be unbearable, even for a serious and impartial CNE.

Of course, a simple yes/no ballot on a Recall Election would have gone a long way into reestablishing confidence in the electoral process. But many suckers seem more interested on pre-rigged elections than on the one that will determine our democratic future.

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