Conversations with Eugenio Martínez I: Vulnerabilities of Venezuela’s Electoral System

David Smilde

Eugenio Martínez is Venezuela’s leading journalist on electoral issues. He writes for El Universal and After we met at a recent conference on Venezuelan elections, he agreed to do the following interview via email.

DS: The issue of incumbent’s advantage in Venezuela’s recent elections is undeniable. During the electoral campaigns the government uses obligatory broadcasts (cadenas), they inaugurate public works, they use public media, and use public institutions and employees to mobilize the vote. Furthermore, the National Electoral Council (CNE) is dominated by rectors close to the government and has not functioned as an impartial referee. That said, wouldn’t you agree that there are few doubts regarding the electoral platform and that Venezuela’s election day is exemplary, being totally automated and including a citizen audit?

EM: The automated platform works as it is supposed to work. To date there is no evidence to suggest electronic manipulation of the vote. However, the technology for counting, transmitting and totaling the votes is only one component of the electoral process.

The fact that the electronic platform works does not mean that there is no voter intimidation or pressure by the government. For example, government officials or activists could conceivably exercise political control of the smaller voting centers with only one or two voting booths. They could also carry out artificial extensions of voting hours so as to facilitate the mobilization of pro-government voters using privileged information on voter participation to which the government has access.

Finally, that the automated system works correctly does not mean there are no cases of usurpation of identity, as the opposition denounced in 2013.

DS: But how is usurpation of identity possible if fingerprints scanning machines are used?

EM: Since October 7, 2012, all voting centers are equipped with an Integrated Authentication System (SAI in Spanish), which compares the digital scan of the voter’s fingerprint with a previously collected fingerprint in the machine’s memory. If the right thumb fingerprint of the voter does not match the one in the machine’s memory, then the voter is asked to place the left thumb in the scanner. The result of this comparison is called an “authentication incidence,” or simply “incidence.”

In the April 2013 presidential elections the CNE’s SAI could generate four basic incidences:

(1) “Match,” which means that the SAI determined that the voter’s fingerprint matched a previous fingerprint for that voter;

(2) “No match,” which means that the SAI determined that the fingerprints of the voter did not match any fingerprint previously stored for that elector;

(3) No upper limbs, which means that the voter had no upper limbs, and;

(4) No registered fingerprints, which means that the voter did not have his fingerprints registered in the machine’s memory.

No matter which incidence, the voter could still always cast his vote. However the machine would register how many incidence of each kind happened during the voting process. Also, the voting machines registered the number of consecutive incidences for each case. If the number of consecutive incidences  exceeded a limit, the voting machine was automatically blocked. The president of the voting table could un-block the machine once, but if it got blocked again, it required the intervention of the CNE.

At the end to the voting process, each machine transmitted the number of incidences to the National Totalizing Center, together with the vote record (acta de votación). This means that since the night of the April 14, 2013 the CNE has had a report that indicates how many people voted whose fingerprints did not match the ones stored in the machine.

If this information about the number of time machines got blocked and un-blocked in each voting center is not made public, it is impossible to dispel the doubts some people have about the results of the last presidential elections.

DS: Were non-duplicity audits done?

EM: To do that you would have to collect all the ID numbers and the fingerprints scans of all the voters in an election, and if you compare all these fingerprints, then you could determine exactly which persons voted multiple times in different voting booths.

The CNE says it did this and discovered that 233 persons had voted more than once. But in reality we can only conjecture on how they arrived at this number, because the CNE has refused to reveal the technical aspects of this audit.

DS: If that’s the case, what can be done about it? Can the opposition counter this by mobilizing witness to the voting centers?

EM: Only in part. One of the keys to any electoral audit is the capacity of the competing political forces to have witnesses in all voting centers. However, for example if the military officers guarding voting centers are complicit in keeping the centers open after the official closing time to facilitate the last minute mobilization of voters, witnesses can record this, but they cannot prevent it. And there is no guarantee that the military will allow opposition witnesses to remain inside voting centers.

And the process does not prevent the harassment of opposition voters in those places where the opposition is not able to mobilize witnesses and all the witnesses are form the PSUV.

The opposition has improved its witness mobilization with each new election, and it now reaches around 80% of the centers. The centers without opposition witnesses are usually remote and in hard to access voting centers with only one or two voting booths.

The smaller the voting center, the greater the chance that the PSUV and the government can exert political control over it. Today, of 13,000 voting centers in the country, 5,454 have only one voting booth. These are the types of centers that generated the most opposition complaints after the presidential elections of October 2012, and April 2013.

In the October 2012 election in those centers with three or more voting booths the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski received 47.7% of the votes, while the late president Hugo Chávez received 52%; but in the centers with only one or two booths, Capriles obtained only 32% of the votes and Chávez 67.6%.

In the April 2013 elections in the bigger voting centers Capriles received a total of 6,879,557 votes and Maduro received 6,666,354. But in the small centers with only one or two tables Maduro received 897,624 and Capriles only 419,795. By the end of 2013, a total of 1,683,483 voters were registered in centers of only one booth, which is 8.8% of the total voter registry.

DS: However, couldn’t these voting trends between small and bigger centers have legitimate causes? It could be that the small voting centers are located in remote rural areas and barrios where Chavismo has strong support.

That is a common explanation, but the smaller voting centers are not only in rural areas. Centers with only one or two voting booth can also be found in urban areas; they can be found in Misión Vivienda settlements [government’s housing projects] or in areas controlled by armed irregular groups. A notable example is the area controlled by the Colectivo la Piedrita in the 23 de Enero parish, very near the presidential Miraflores Palace. And beyond the debate on whether the results in these small voting centers actually reflects the voting tendencies of their district, they show participation levels that are statistically anomalous compared to the rest of the voting centers.

Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernáiz