- By Juan Cristóbal NagelJuan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution.
When the losing candidates in a presidential election cry foul, it is usually an uphill battle to reverse the results. Equally challenging is the task of changing international perceptions about what really happened during the voting or counting processes.
Venezuela plunged into a political crisis triggered by a razor-thin — and vigorously disputed — victory at the polls for incumbent President Nicolás Maduro over opposition challenger Henrique Capriles. As the opposition continues demanding that justice be served, it is worth asking: Does Capriles have a case? What is the basis for his claims that the election was a sham and needs to be redone?
After the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced the results on April 14th, giving Maduro a victory by roughly 1 percent, Capriles went on air and refused to concede. He claimed there were numerous "irregularities" at the polls that required a full audit.
Initially, many observers thought that Capriles was claiming there was some sort of numeric fraud, that results from the machines in the voting centers did not match what the CNE was tallying in Caracas (in theory, the two numbers should match, since the results from each center are reported electronically to CNE headquarters). This initial impression is mistaken, Capriles clarified: The CNE’s numbers match the votes as registered by the machines. But the way those votes got there in the first place is the crux of the problem.
In order to assess Capriles’ claim, one has to understand the voting day procedure in Venezuela. Voters identify themselves at polling centers by showing their government-issued ID card and scanning their fingerprints. The scanner then (supposedly) verifies the identity of the voter, and if it passes, unlocks a machine the voter uses to cast her vote.
Once the vote is cast, the machine produces a paper ballot which the voter inserts into a brown box. The voter finally signs a notebook certifying she has voted.
After the voting center closes, half of the machines are supposed to be randomly audited in the presence of the voting public as well as observers from all campaign camps. The audit consists of counting the paper ballots from the brown boxes and verifying they match with the automatic totals printed by the corresponding machine. In other words, the machine’s total votes are compared to the paper "receipts" placed in the brown boxes. Total results for each machine are then transmitted to Caracas.
Capriles conceded that the tallies from the voting machines coincided with the numbers being published by the CNE. In other words, there was no "numeric" fraud, or at least no fraud from the moment the machine sent its results to the moment they were announced to the public. The irregularities, he says, happened before: During the vote itself, and in the days and weeks prior to voting day.
Capriles claims that in hundreds of polling places, the number of votes recorded in the notebooks does not match the number of votes in the machines — there are more machine tallies than voter signatures. He claims that many observers reporting for the opposition were threatened or simply expelled from the polling sites, and this invalidates both the voting process and the audits done in those centers. He also claims that voting centers remained opened after the legally designated closing time, waiting for government activists to bring in busloads of chavista voters. More seriously, he claims that voter intimidation was rampant. Alarmingly, there are thousands of alleged cases of voters being accompanied to the voting booth by clearly identified government activists, who proceeded to "explain" to voters how to vote for Maduro. Several videos of these practices have gone viral.
The end result, according to Capriles, is good, old-fashioned ballot-stuffing only with a modern facade, since it was done with a highly automated system.
One has to wonder: How could chavistas get away with this? The explanation, according to Capriles, lies in the fingerprint scanning machines. According to him, these machines allow anyone to vote, regardless of whether the fingerprint matches the records. He notes that the software governing the machines was not audited prior to the election — because the CNE refused to allow such an audit.
When you combine questionable high-tech voting machinery with a government that loosely hands out ID cards, buses people to voting centers using government vehicles, intimidates public workers into supporting the government, and uses an electoral registry that includes tens of thousands of dead voters, it’s not too difficult to see how the vote could easily be inflated in favor of the ruling incumbent.
All Capriles wants is a full audit: of machines, ballot boxes, voting notebooks, fingerprint machines, and that the underlying codes for all the procedures be studied and tallied against one another. In centers where there is a serious mismatch, the votes should be voided and, perhaps, repeated.
Initially, the CNE balked at the idea of an audit (there are no automatic recounts in Venezuelan elections), but relented under international pressure. After the initial shock of the election results passed, the CNE has virtually shut down. The only time it discussed the requested audit in public was to say that whatever comes from the audit won’t change the results. At this point, it seems as if no audit will take place. Capriles has said that he will boycott any partial audit that does not address the issues he raised. His next step is to go to the courts to demand the elections be partially voided.
The situation in Venezuela remains highly combustible. With an opposition that has a history of alleging fraud against the government, doubts within the movement itself about the strength of the evidence of fraud and its corrosive effect on voter turnout have prevented the claims from going too far. This time, the opposition is solidly behind Capriles and his team.
Maduro may have all of the state’s institutions in the palm of his hand, but he also has at least 49 percent of the country convinced that his win needs to be cleared up. As if he didn’t have enough to worry about (the economic crisis is growing, and oil prices are falling), a questionable legitimacy can only further hurt his chances of running the country successfully. Only time will tell if things take a turn for the bad, or the worst.