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?

Fernando Llano/AP
A voter uses a fingerprint scanner during a mock election to simulate upcoming Oct. 7 presidential election at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012.

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.

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."

While Costa Rica and Peru have similar registration levels of 95 percent, voting in those countries is compulsory.

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."

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