Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Transparency in the Venezuelan Referendum

There are many things to say about the voting process that just took place in Venezuela this past week, but this post will focus on only one important issue: the reliability and credibility of the actual voting process administered by the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE), which I think we can safely assume is 100% staffed with Chavistas.

It is first important to note that, from the 2004 referendum (when only 4% of the voting tables were audited, meaning the electronic tally was compared to the paper receipt) to the 2006 presidential elections (when some 30% were audited), to the December 2 referendum on the constitutional reforms (where some 54% of the voting tables were audited), the CNE has increasingly become more transparent in its operations in order to gain the confidence of a very skeptical citizenry.

Yet two days after the referendum, many people still feel that the numbers were tampered with, and that negotiations were held with Chavez so that the actual higher margin would not make Chavez look so bad. One group, for example, claimed today that the real vote was something like 58% for the NO, and 42% for the SI. Even though the opposition leader Manuel Rosales accepted the results in last year's December 2006 presidential election as valid -- did so again today -- rumors and desconfianza persist.

So what can the CNE do about it? One diplomat told me yesterday (Monday) that the CNE should publish the results of every voting table on the internet, so that people could check the results. This would go a long way to creating greater confidence in the electoral system.

Well, in fact, as of today, the CNE has done just that -- published the preliminary results of the votes that had been counted by Sunday night night (some 90% of all tables, with some voting stations that did not use voting machines coming in later, as well as votes from abroad). You can find the results here: http://www.cne.gov.ve/divulgacion_referendo_reforma/ (The voting results of the December 2006 presidential elections are equally disaggregated and available online, in case someone wants to do further analysis of political tendencies.) The most credible member of the CNE, Vicente Diaz, gave a press conference today in which he called upon everyone to access their website, and check the results for themselves.

You might ask, what does this prove? Let me run through the steps of tallying votes, at least in one voting center in Caracas which I observed, and it will become apparent that the Venezuelan electoral process allows for unprecedented transparency and for broad citizen participation in the verification of election results.
  1. At the end of the day, the members of each mesa (which in this case included one representative each of the SI and NO, along with the official supervisors) were present while electronic paper receipts were printed out. Anyone who wanted to could be present, the results are read aloud, and copies were made for the CNE as well as for others who wished to have one.
  2. Depending on the size of the voting center, 1-5 tables were audited through a random selection process carried out in each voting center. The auditoria process means that the box that contains the receipts of each vote (which is deposited in a sealed box after each electronic vote) is opened and counted manually, and a public tally is made to make sure that the paper receipts match the electronic printout.
  3. Once all of this is finished, the electronic numbers are transmitted electronically to the CNE, which does the final tally.
As you can see, this process allows for all sides (as well as extraneous individuals and observers) to verify the vote count of every single mesa. One can often walk away with an actual electronic copy of the voting results from each voting center, which is amply checked because of the auditing process. Now that the CNE has produced these initial results, which represents most all of the centers that used electronic voting machines, then anyone can go online and verify whether the numbers were tampered with.

This really is an amazing degree of transparency, if you ask me, and I'd like to know if there's any precedent for this anywhere else in the world. Given that the students and opposition political parties mounted a vigorous effort to monitor the results of the referendum, if they do not come forward now with firm proof of results tampering, then perhaps the Venezuelan people will finally be able to get past this issue, a step that will be key to further stimulate electoral turnout in the future.

That's the basic story. Of course, there were irregularities -- for example, some machines broke down and were not repaired, and paper ballots were not always immediately available as a backup -- but the respected domestic monitoring group, Ojo Electoral, which monitored a sample of 400 mesas, noted that there were only "isolated incidents" in an otherwise normal process.

I was able to note in one polling place where I witnessed the final vote count in Caracas (one that went 2-to-1 in favor of the NO) the professionalism and openness of the CNE workers who tried to resolve these problems. For example, here's a video I took of how they dealt with what happened when a machine failed to give the final tally:

And here's a young CNE official explaining (in English) what is to be done if a machine breaks down during the day, which happened alot:

Here's another video, that was taken during the reading of the electronic tally:

And another one that looks at how the paper audit is done:

In this last one, notice how I try to show that several people in the room are doing their own tallies as each individual vote is counted:

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