Conversations with Eugenio Martínez II: Declining Confidence in Venezuela’s National Electoral Council

David Smilde

[This is the second of a two part interview with Eugenio Martínez, a Venezuelan journalist specializing in elections. See the first post here.]

DS: You have mentioned some vulnerabilities of Venezuela’s election-day procedures that go beyond the issue of the electronic vote count. What other weaknesses are there?

EM: Another important issue is how to prevent coercion over citizens by forcing them to vote for the Socialist Party (PSUV), under the threat of losing access to social plans, or how to prevent a repetition of the consequences of the “Tascón List,” which was used as a political control mechanism to socially punish those who had signed the petition of a re-call referendum against Chávez in 2004.

The electoral strategy of the PSUV is based on pressuring voters into voting for the Bolivarian Revolution or face the loss of privileges or access to social welfare plans. How does this pressure work? By cross-referencing the data of persons voting in a given election with the information on social welfare programs the State has. This practice feeds into the perception–which has no technical basis but is equally powerful in conditioning the vote–that voting is not secret. In a country where citizens depend every day more and more on the State, the belief that the vote is not secret dramatically conditions the result of an election.

The opposition was the first to claim that the vote is not secret–which is why it withdrew from the 2005 parliamentary elections. But that fear has been propagated by the government through its mobilization strategy, which is based on real time data of who has voted. They crosscheck it with the list of beneficiaries of its misiones and social welfare plans.

DS: So people know the government knows whether they vote. That leads some to assume the government also knows how they vote.

A recent survey by the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB) on perceptions of the electoral system shows that for 50% of the citizens it is “absolutely certain” that voting is not secret, and an additional 12.3% have some doubts about the secrecy of the vote. This fear has increased by 11% in the last year. In mid-2013 51% of citizens had doubts about the secrecy of the vote, today 62% of voters share fears over that secrecy.

Fears about the use of fingerprint machines in stores to ration price-controlled goods could be one of the variables that are increasing existing doubts about the secrecy of the vote in the country. 43.8% of citizens are “absolutely certain” that the data from fingerprint scanning machines in food stores and drugstores will be crossed with the data from the fingerprint machines in the voting centers. 17% of citizens consider this fear “partially” true.

DS: How does this affect the overall confidence in the National Electoral Council (CNE)?

Only 22% of citizens have “a lot of confidence” in the CNE, while 13% said to have “some confidence.” 50% of those surveyed declared to have “no confidence in the CNE, and 14% said they have “little confidence.” 44.5% of citizens were “absolutely certain” that “the results can be electronically changed by the CNE.”

The lack of confidence in the CNE has progressively increased since 2013. And that is taking into account that in the last 18 months there have been no elections in Venezuela. In early 2013, 42% of the citizens had some degree of mistrust in the CNE. This negative perception rose to 56% in 2014 and jumped to 64% in 2015. 

The jump of 9 percentage points in citizen mistrust in the CNE happened after the ratification of the majority of the ruling body of the CNE in December 2014. After the ratification of the rectors of the CNE, the percentage of citizens assuring that they had “no confidence” in the CNE increased from 34% to 50%.

DS: Does only the opposition lack confidence in the CNE?

EM: No. According to the UCAB survey the correct thing to say would be that only the pro-Maduro chavistas have trust in the CNE: 75% of that group said it had “a lot of confidence” and 15.7% said they had “some confidence” in the electoral authority.

DS: The non-maduristas chavistas have less confidence in the CNE?

In that segment, 41.6% of the citizens said they had a “lot of confidence” in the CNE, and 17.3% said they had “some confidence.” However, 24% of the chavistas that do not identify with Nicolás Maduro mistrust the CNE, and 16.8% say they have “some confidence.” In the case of independent voters, 52.6% say they have “no confidence” in the CNE.