End of the Year Venezuela Reading I: E-Lector Blog

A three-day holiday weekend provides some time to catch up on reading. So instead of closing out 2017 by reviewing the highlights of a terrible year. I am going to point out a couple of sources I meant to highlight in recent weeks and months but did not get to.

The first is the new blog called E-Lector created by the Observatorio Global de Comunicación y Democracia. The OGCD is an NGO founded by Griselda Colina, a former coordinator of the Carter Center’s former Venezuela program. This month, in the wake of the October 15 governor´s elections, E-Lector started with a series of guest posts on the current state of Venezuela´s electoral institutions.

Colina and Hector Vanolli recount the trajectory of Venezuela’s electoral system in the past fifteen years, focusing on the paradoxical process whereby the National Electoral Council created a solid electronic platform at the same time that it progressively became coopted by the country’s executive branch. This is fundamentally right. It is true that the CNE has completely discredited itself, especially in the past year. But it was the electronic system that allowed the detection of fraud in the July 30 election of the National Constituent Assembly, and in the Bolivar State governor’s election.

Aime Nogal Méndez, a former CNE official reviews five myths regarding Venezuela’s automated voting system. The first myth is that a voter can vote multiple times. This is not actually possible because the voting machine itself has the biographic information of 800 voters and will only allow each of them to vote once.

Second is the myth of “vote injection,” the idea that prior to the electoral event the machine could previously be stacked with votes. This would easily be detected in audits in which each machine needs to show zero votes at the beginning.

Third is the myth that votes for each candidate can be limited in the machines. This too would easily be detected by audits. Fourth is the idea that the pendrives are switched for ones that have fraudulent votes. This is actually a back-up in case the transmission system fails, and the information is encrypted and certified by the machine.

Finally there is the specter of the machines being hacked during transmission. The machines are disconnected during the voting process and only permit transmission after 6 pm. And what ends up getting transmitted can be cross checked against the act that was printed and checked against the paper ballots. (This is how the fraud in Bolivar State was detected.)

A piece by elections consultant Felix Arroyo goes provides an inventory of the different audits and guarantees the voting system is subject to, including those that happen before, during and after the vote.

These analyses underline the fact that the electronic platform and system of audits and checks is solid. But it entirely depends on the human beings and institutions surrounding it. If there are not witnesses from all parties at the electoral tables, the “voto puyado”—or false votes being cast by table members—could occur. If there are not witnesses from all parties during the posterior live audit, transmission and acts can be manipulated (as in Bolivar in October), or votes could simply be fabricated (as happened in the ANC election in July). But it is the electronic system and set of audits that makes these detectable and denounce-able even if, in the end, the people with the guns and the money can do what they want.

Jennifer McCoy, former director of the Carter Center’s America’s Program asks whether it is worth going to elections in a non-democratic regime. She gives a resounding yes suggesting that an opposition in an undemocratic context can still win some spaces and that participation provides the opportunity, information and attention to document abuses, which can discredit and problematize and undemocratic regime.

To round out the set of blog pieces, political consultant Dimitris Pantoulas provides a more theoretical essay on the meaning of democracy and participation in the current context. He suggests that while formal institutions of representation have significantly deteriorated in the past year, practices of direct democracy have flourished.

The April-July cycle of protest and the July referendum rejecting the government’s push for a constituent assembly showed proactive citizen resistance to the decline of representative democracy. In addition, when the main opposition parties decided to boycott the December municipal elections, independent candidates participated. This type of direct participation does not provide an alternative form of governance, but reveals an unruly base that demands the recovery of representative institutions.