The BIOS Code Affair: The Opposition and Venezuela’s National Electoral Council

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

The short 10-day campaign saw the opposition produce new criticisms of the National Electoral Council (CNE). As in previous elections, the opposition needed to strike just the right balance between pressuring the CNE regarding what they believe the electoral body’s biases to be, and assuring its supporters that elections will be clean, thus avoiding voter abstention. This latter point is an important one, as in the past elections the opposition’s recurrent accusations of electoral fraud hurt its own voter turnout.

On April 3rd, however, the opposition raised an alarm that implied a technical failure on the part of the CNE. The Secretary of the opposition´s MUD coalition, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, stated in a press conference that a liaison CNE-PSUV technician (named Oscar Matínez) had the BIOS (Basic Input Output System) code allowing him to access the voting machines that are to be used on April 14th. The discovery had been made during a routine inspection on March 30. The BIOS code, according to Aveledo, should be only in the hands of CNE technicians and not of party representatives to the CNE.

During the press conference however, Aveledo insisted that the event did not, in any way, endanger the secrecy of the vote or the integrity of the whole process and the result. Rather, he said,

“We do not want to alarm Venezuelans…the risk that this implies is limited, isolated. This is serious because of what it means: how is it possible that people from the PSUV have this? I´ll put it in clear terms: it is true that anyone can force their way into one of these machines with a screwdriver, a rock, a hammer, throwing it against the floor, just like anyone can come into my house breaking down the door, a window, the fence. What would really alarm me if is someone had the keys to my house. Why does this person have the keys to the machine? (…) It is clear that the PSUV has endangered the security [of the CNE].”

In the following days technicians from the MUD insisted that the risk to the secrecy of the vote through the use the BIOS code was low, and that the code only allowed one to access the machine’s basic functions, such as date and time changes, but it could not be used to add or subtract votes or to modify them.

Throughout the week the opposition further insisted that even if a PSUV militant used the code during the process, this would be detected by the witnesses at the voting center. Therefore the code would only be useful in the context of a “complicity scenario” at the center. If the code had been used before Election Day to access the machines, this would also be detected during the initializing process of the machine on Sunday when the election is scheduled (the process is witnessed by the representatives of all parties in the voting center).

Government representatives dismissed the MUD denunciation as part of an ongoing strategy to discredit the CNE and destabilize the country. The Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz declared, “I see this as an attempt to disqualify and undermine the authority of the electoral rector just when we are heading to a Presidential elections…they are trying to smear an electoral process that up to now has developed with absolute peace and normality. [This is] something akin to a destabilization attempt.”

Francisco Ameliach and Jorge Rodríguez from the PSUV also reacted to the MUD denunciation. They called the MUD hypocritical since their representatives had approved and signed off on the audit of the machines done on March 30. For them the “attack” on the CNE was due to the supposed intention of Capriles of withdrawing from the race. 

Aveledo in his press conference had declared that the MUD had spoken with CNE rector Tibisay Lucena and that she had admitted the leakage of the code was irregular and she would look into it. But on April 9th she declared that the investigations on the use of the BIOS code by the PSUV technicians did not alter the elector process and, therefore, the PSUV militant Oscar Martínez would not be sanctioned. She argued that the BIOS code was of general use, had not been changed for over 8 years, and was common knowledge in both campaign camps.

The only rector of the CNE linked to the opposition, Vicente Díaz, disagreed with Lucena and declared “It´s incomprehensible that an investigation has not been conducted regarding the technician from the PSUV because the situation was irregular…There is no protocol in the CNE to hand out codes to the parties.”

The episode is unlikely to have further implications for the elections of April 14, but it nicely illustrated the dilemmas faced by the opposition when criticizing the CNE. If the opposition loses however, rumors of electoral fraud will undoubtedly refer to the BIOS code affair.