Venezuelan Elections Briefing I: Vulnerabilities of the System

David Smilde and Michael McCarthy

The government of Nicolás Maduro faces important legislative elections on December 6 with popularity below 25%. If polling trends continue the opposition should win a simple majority and perhaps even a super-majority of the National Assembly

As such the government is feeling the heat. On October 5, Maduro said, “I believe the December 6 elections could be the most difficult elections the revolution has faced.” And he has said repeatedly to his followers “we must win, whatever it takes (como sea).”

It is unlikely that the government would engage in outright fraud as their national and international legitimacy strongly depends on being elected to power. Indeed several moves—such as the early retirement of several Supreme Court justices presumably so that this National Assembly (AN) can replace them before the new AN is installed—suggest they are making strategic preparations for losing.

But it is clear that they are attempting, as they have in the past, to gain strategic advantages by nibbling around the edges. And since this is not a winner-take-all national election, but essentially 114 individual elections, the margin matters and while the government seems to be willing to lose, it wants to lose by as little as possible.

In the rest of the piece we will look at the ways the government is working and adapting the system to its favor. However, as is to be expected in any complex social and political context, there are countervailing ways in which the system has been strengthened. We will mention those as well.


There are a number of aspects of the pre-campaign and campaign through which the government has complicated the opposition campaign.

Belatedly Announced Changes

On June 26, the CNE announced a gender quota for parties—40% on each party slate must be female—shortly ahead of the August 3 date for parties to formally nominate their candidates and a couple of weeks after opposition MUD held its primaries. In July the CNE clarified this announcement saying that primary results must be respected but that gender parity needed to be fulfilled in the rest of the districts, in candidates by list, and replacements. Since the PSUV held primaries in all of its districts and the MUD only in 33, this measure affected the latter more than the former.

Candidate Disqualifications

In July, the Comptroller General’s office ruled ineligible the candidacies of three important opposition leaders (Pablo Pérez, María Corina Machado, Enzo Scarano), in addition to the two that were already disqualified (Daniel Ceballos, Manuel Rosales) on the basis of controversial provisions that allow for such disqualifications on the basis of simple accusations, not convictions, of corruption. In September, the CNE disqualified Carlos Vechio because he has a warrant out for his arrest.

The CNE has also prevented some third party forces, such as dissident Chavista movement Marea Socialista and opposition party Vente Venezuela, from registering their parties to run candidates on a party slate or as individual nominations.

Unfair campaign Conditions

Elections over the past several years have shown severe inequities in campaign conditions with the government using public resources, including state media, state institutions and state employees on behalf of its electoral efforts. The Carter Center’s report on the 2012 election provides a review of these inequities and this blog also looked at them closely before the 2013 election (here regarding the powers of the presidency, here regarding the cadena national broadcasts and use of state media, state institutions and state employees, and here regarding the Electoral Registry and national observation / international accompaniment model).

This time around the CNE has reduced the official campaign to the three weeks from November 13 to December 3 meaning what happens before that is not considered “campaign” and is therefore not regulated.

Government Media Advantage

In previous electoral cycles the government’s abuse of state media was less important because the private media was strongly opposition. Indeed in 2012 independent analyses showed that opposition candidate Henrique Capriles was able to get his message effectively, yielding a situation of near parity of visibility with Hugo Chávez on media outlets during the campaign.

But since 2013 the government has neutralized the most important opposition media outlets. While claims of a complete absence of freedom of expression are exaggerated, the government now has a clear advantage in broadcast media.

Opposition candidates get interviews on broadcast media but scarce coverage of their events. Print media is more equitable with critical coverage still common in El Universal and Ultimas Noticias—although less so since they changed hands in 2013-14. El Nacional maintains a strong opposition line. New media portals such as and have become the main source of critical news.

State of exception on the Colombian Border

On August 19, President Maduro declared a national state of emergency in municipalities of Táchira state situated along the border with Colombia, placing military officials in charge of these territories and suspending Constitutional guarantees such as the right to public assembly and to protest. He later extended the scope of the state of emergency to border towns in the states of Apure, Amazonas and Zulia. The state of emergency now applies in 60 municipalities and has been extended until after election day.

The extent to which authorities in these states—the most important of which (Zulia, Táchira, Apure) have pro-government governors—will enforce these restrictions is unclear. The opposition’s most recent street demonstration—a nationwide protest against the sentencing of Leopoldo López—included protests in the capitals of these states without incident. But, according to recent press accounts, the restrictions on public activities are affecting opposition campaigning.


The aspect of Venezuela’s voting system most focused on by critics—the electronic voting platform manufactured by Smartmatic—is actually the least problematic element of the system. To date there is no evidence that they have been used in any kind of fraudulent activity. However, the voting machines are only one small part of the electoral system and there are a number of other vulnerabilities that can hinder an effective expression of voter preferences.

The Ballot

The ballot that was approved by the CNE has the opposition’s ticket represented by a light blue rectangle with Unidad in black. Next to it on the right is a pro-government ticket with the same color blue called minUNIDAD in white. Above the opposition’s ticket is another ticket called “Unidad Democratica Renovadora.” The opposition has accused the CNE of working with the PSUV to mislead voters. Indeed PSUV candidate William Ojeda is campaigning with billboards for Min-UNIDAD that say “We are the Opposition.”


The electoral law of 2009 gerrymandered districts in favor of Chavismo. However, it actually backfired in a few cases (such as the states of Zulia and Anzoategui) and was not the reason that the PSUV was able to obtain a majority of the AN seats with a minority of the votes in 2010. Analysis showed that it was the rural bias built into the Constitution that was responsible for the government winning a majority of the seats with a minority of the vote (see Monaldi et al).

This year the CNE again altered some districts which should favor the government with an extra one or two deputies (see Monaldi’s analysis and Martínez’s analysis). Nevertheless, it is still the case that the opposition’s principle strength is in Venezuela’s urban centers and the system’s rural bias therefore favors Chavismo.

Doubts about Vote Secrecy

The government’s clearest path to doing better than expected in the elections is to make sure its voters turn out, while the opposition’s voters abstain. Raising doubts about the secrecy of the vote achieves both.

After the PUSV primaries in June—a vote administered by the CNE—Maduro made controversial remarks about his and the party leadership’s knowledge of who voted in the primaries. This is actually true of primaries and of the general election as the information of who did and did not vote is public. This does not mean that the government or anyone else can know who a voter voted for. Nevertheless, it could reduce the abstention of disaffected pro-government voters who think benefits the receive from the government might be in jeopardy.

For the 2012 elections the government introduced fingerprint scanning machines which will also be used in these elections. In the past year stores that sell basic goods have begun to use fingerprint machines to prevent hoarding and contraband. This naturally creates the impression among people that if they vote against the government it could affect their access to basic goods. And the trend has continued. 

Ten years ago it was the opposition that promoted the idea that the vote was not secret. It withdrew from the 2005 legislative elections at the last moment in part as a response to complaints about whether voting machines guaranteed voter secrecy. Still today, opposition radicals claim the vote is fraudulent and seek to generate abstention using the Twitter hashtag #SalvaTuVoto

Election day conditions

Since the contested April 2013 presidential elections there has been increased scrutiny of conditions of the actual vote. Denunciations have described several ways that the integrity of the vote can be affected on election day at the voting centers (see this interview with Eugenio Martinez for a fuller description).

During the act of voting there have been denunciations of “assisted voting” in which people affiliated with the PSUV assist voters and thereby impinge on their ability to cast a secret vote. There have also been denunciations of pro-government activists intimidating opposition voters.

There are a couple of ways that the vote can be affected by extending the hours of the electoral centers. First, extending the hours of voting centers allows government mobilization efforts to target people who have abstained using information on who has turned out. Using such information is legitimate as long as all parties have equal access to this information. But opposition critics have suggested this has not been the case in previous elections. Furthermore, polling stations must only be kept open if there are people waiting in line.

Another way is through what is called “voto puyado.” After the doors are closed but the machines are still active, in theory if only one party is represented at the electoral center, they could vote for all of those voters who abstained. The finger print machines register “no matches” but do not impede people from voting. To make this more difficult, for this election the CNE has tightened up the machines by reducing the number of consecutive “no matches” that will block the machine’s functioning

New Voting Centers 

During the five-month long voter registration process, the CNE also established more than 1,000 new voting centers, many of which are small polling places and are thought to be situated in government-built housing complexes or in offices housing pro-government participatory groups (see analysis by Eugenio Martinez). The MUD’s representative to the CNE has expressed concern about whether the integrity of the vote can be ensured in these new centers. The opposition has had trouble with either getting party witnesses to similar polling places in the past or in having full coverage of the center during the day, as some witnesses were reported to walk off the job after feeling intimidated.


As became evident in April 2013, elections do not end on election day. Rather electoral disputes and complaints are common and mechanisms for resolving them are important in assuring citizens and stakeholders of the integrity of the vote.


The sources of vote fraud mentioned above can easily be detected through audits. However, they require due diligence by the CNE in the immediate aftermath of the election. After the 2013 election the CNE apparently did an audit of the finger-print “no match” audit. But it did it in a non-public way and did not provide a technical report (see pp79-83 of Carter Center report). Their reluctance to engage in timely and transparent audits in the aftermath of the 2013 contested election seriously affected public views of their impartiality.

There has actually been significant improvement on this issue. In October the CNE conceded to a number of demands made by the opposition to tighten the system and expand the audits. Perhaps the most important was the immediate posterior audit of fingerprint “no matches” in the election. 

In our next post in this series, we will examine the arbiters and overseers in this election.