Thursday, August 19, 2004

Auditing the vote in Venezuela

I'm waiting on pins and needles to see what the Carter Center and the OAS find in their recount of 150 voting machines in Venezuela. Normally, I would think the OAS --which did a poor job of monitoring the elections here in El Salvador, but at least made sure the computers used to tabulate the vote functioned properly -- would have checked out these new, controversial voting machines before they were used.

But in an op-ed from one of the saner voices of the otherwise fanatical opposition, Enrique Ter Horst raises some plausible issues in the International Herald Tribune yesterday:

The electoral council has stated that the voting machines were audited after the vote, but the council did so in the absence of any opposition representative or any international observer. A cause for even greater concern is the fact that the papers the new machines produced confirming the voter's choice - which the voter had to verify and then drop into a closed box - were not added up and compared with the final numbers these machines produce at the end of the voting process, as the voting-machine manufacturer had suggested.

Evidence of foul play has surfaced. In the town of Valle de la Pascua, where papers were counted at the initiative of those manning the voting center, the Yes vote had been cut by more than 75 percent, and the entire voting material was seized by the national guard shortly after the difference was established.

Three machines in a voting center in the state of Bolivar that has generally voted against Chávez all showed the same 133 votes for the Yes option, and higher numbers for the No option. Two other machines registered 126 Yes votes and much higher votes for the No. The opposition alleges that these machines, which can both send and receive information, were reprogrammed to start adjudicating all votes to the No option after a given number of Yes votes has been registered.

Although the Organization of American States and the Carter Center have called the election free and fair, their quick count justifying this statement was also based only on the numbers provided by the voting machines. The two organizations had brokered an agreement to examine, in the presence of government and opposition representatives, a sample of 150 voting points chosen at random. A comparison of the results printed out by these machines with the papers contained in the corresponding boxes was to be concluded this week. But the opposition now wants all machines and ballot boxes to be examined.

I'd seen these allegations on Venezuelan TV the other night (which we can get on our local cable), and they sounded plausible, and it made sense for the international monitors to take a second look. If the 150 stations were chosen randomly, then they might well give us some perspective on the matter. If no anomalies are found, though, I'm not sure if it would then be worth appeasing the opposition by reviewing every single piece of paper and every single machine -- even though that might be what it takes to get the opposition to back down.

I should also mention that I knew Ter Horst when he was head of the UN mission here in El Salvador in the mid-1990s, and he's a very level-headed guy. So it probably is worth listening to his perspective.

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