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?
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To the conspiracy-minded, many of those new registrations represent a slush fund of phantom voters that can be pressed into government service.
Venezuela's Catholic University, however, suggests more mundane reasons. In a June study, the university found that authorities were not expunging dead voters fast enough. As a result, 49,500 voters who died between 2011 and 2012 remained on the rolls.
But the study also found that 14 out of 24 Venezuelan states have more registered voters than people eligible to vote. The rural northern province of Delta de Amacuro, for example, has 122 percent more registered voters than its projected population.
Despite these "inconsistencies," the study determined that the registration rolls "meet the minimum requirements to hold presidential elections October 7."
Weil says the only reliable way to audit voter rolls is to match them to birth certificates. In 2005, the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights' Center for Electoral Promotion and Assistance tried to do just that.
But when it asked the government for the birth records of 12,820 voters picked at random, authorities could not produce enough documents to run the test. The center did not draw any conclusions from the omission but simply skipped that section of the audit.
One of the keys to any election is observation. "Even well-structured electoral systems in functional democracies can be manipulated if a disorganized opposition isn't capable of having witnesses at the voting booths," noted a recent report by the Wilson Center.
In Venezuela, that challenge is growing exponentially. During the 2000 presidential election, there were 7,000 voting tables nationwide, according to the Venezuelan embassy in the United States. This year there will be 39,226 voting tables. The increase may be good for voters, but it's a logistical nightmare for political parties trying to cover far-flung polling stations. According to a Voto Limpio analysis, 150 of those centers have less than 12 voters and 15 of them only have one voter.
The issue is compounded by the fact that, as in the United States, Venezuela's candidates don't receive public financing, and the nation hasn't invited international observers since 2006.
In past elections, there have been accusations of ballot stuffing at remote polling stations. And some blame the practice for Chavez's ability to crush a 2004 recall referendum.
In 2006, the peer-reviewed journal International Statistical Review published an analysis of the recall and found 18 percent of voting centers - representing some 2.6 million voters - showed irregular voting patterns. According to the journal's analysis, the opposition should have won the referendum with 52 to 60 percent of the vote, instead of losing it with 41 percent, as the government tally shows.
The opposition says it will have enough volunteers - 256,423 - to cover every single voting center this year. And Capriles recently told The Miami Herald that he had won four hotly contested elections "because I've always guarded my votes."
Most experts agree that the potential for wide-scale fraud is minimal and the government has made strides to improve the election system.
"The election process is more or less protected," said Saul Cabrera with Consultores 21 polling firm. "But almost half of Venezuelans still don't trust the system."
IN PICTURES - Hugo Chavez the showman