Election system in Venezuela: High tech, but low trust
When Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday to elect their next president, they will be using one of the most sophisticated voting systems in the hemisphere. But could the machines give Chavez an edge?
As the United States squabbles over its voter ID laws, Venezuelans will face one of the most rigorous systems in the hemisphere when they head to the polls Oct. 7.Skip to next paragraph
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After keying in an identification number, a voter's photo and name will pop up on a screen. Only after validating their identity with a thumb swipe over an electronic reader will the voting machine be activated.
The government and independent observers say the new system is one of the most sophisticated in the hemisphere. It's designed to weed out double voting and leave behind a paper and digital trail that makes it fast and easy to audit.
"As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we've monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world," former President Jimmy Carter said this month at The Carter Center.
But in polarized Venezuela – where President Hugo Chavez is facing one of the tightest races of his 14-year tenure – some are fretting that the new machines, and other quirks of the electoral system, may give the government an edge.
Independent auditors and the opposition's own technical team say the thumbprint reader attached to the Smartmatic voting machines scrambles the order of votes, so there's no way to know who voted for whom. But the fact that the identification system is visibly linked to the voting panel seems designed to generate doubts, said Ludwig Moreno, a member of the Voto Limpio election watchdog group.
"Let me be clear: the vote is most likely secret, but it doesn't appear to be secret," he said. "And that's why these machines were installed."
Voter privacy is a sensitive issue in Venezuela. In 2004, the names of more than 2.4 million people who had signed a presidential recall petition were released.
Government agencies were accused of firing and discriminating against people on the Lista Tascon. In 2005, Chavez called on his supporters to quit using the list, but it left many wary of openly opposing the administration.
Still, many view the privacy warnings as an opposition ploy to cloud an eventual Chavez victory. On a recent weekday, Luis Otorio, 62, a retired dentist, stepped out of one of the mock voting booths set up around Caracas. He declared the new system "super fino" and said the only people who were questioning it were supporters of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
"They'll say or do anything to win this race," Otorio said. "They're thrashing around like drowning chickens."
On paper, Venezuela is one of the most civically active nations on the planet, with a voter registration rate of 96.5 percent. (By comparison, only 65 percent of potential U.S. voters are registered.) The Chavez administration has said the historic levels are the result of a massive registration drive, which began in 2003. But for some, the figures are too good.
Alfredo Weil was on the board of Venezuela's election council for 12 years, most recently in 1994. Weil, who now runs the Esdata election watchdog group, points out that in 2003 the registration rate was 76.5 percent. He said it is hard to believe that voter rolls increased so dramatically over such a short period of time.
"According to government figures all but (3 percent) of people took the time to register to vote but abstention is 30 percent," he said. "It just makes no sense."