Venezuelan Elections Briefing III: The MUD-CNE Relationship

Michael McCarthy and David Smilde

One of the lesser-known aspects of Venezuelan elections is the extensive involvement of political parties in monitoring the system. In the first piece in this series we looked at the different ways the government is nibbling around the edges to reduce its electoral disadvantage. In the second piece we looked at the various actors involved in monitoring the elections. In this post we will look specifically at the oversight exercised by the opposition coalition, Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD).

For these elections, this oversight begins month before the elections, with party officials reviewing the voter rolls and the software platform, continues on election day, with party representatives being present in CNE-managed national voting centers, and carries over in to the post-election phase with audits of the used software platform. All parties that run candidates are invited to participate in the oversight process.

All parties that run candidates are invited to participate in the oversight process. But, for building confidence in the electoral system, the MUD’s relationship with the CNE is the most important. The MUD’s team includes political representatives who can petition the CNE regarding improvements to the system and the technicians who partake in the pre-electoral audits of the election software.

The MUD’s oversight team, headed by Jose Luis Cartaya and Vicente Bello, has participated in and signed-off on 13 of the 23 audits of the system that will be carried out (see here as well). Their oversight work can be broken down in terms of two different phases of the electoral process—addressing key aspects of the election’s conditions and attempting to strengthen the vote’s integrity on election day.

The opposition voiced serious concerns about the possibilities for double voting—the usurpation of identity—and irregularities surrounding assisted voting—e.g., a disabled or elderly person that votes with the assistance of a guardian.

The CNE has responded to the MUD’s petitions on these points with some receptivity, according to specialist in electoral issues Eugenio Martínez.

Insights into the MUD-CNE relationship date from October and it is not clear how things have progressed this past month as tensions on the campaign trail have reached a boiling point.

According to correspondences divulged by Martínez, the CNE agreed to the MUD’s call for a post-electoral audit that authenticates the identity of the voters by reviewing the fingerprints used at polling places. Venezuela uses a biometric fingerprint system, and 96.5% of the voting population’s fingerprints are registered.

However, the quality of the print is not always perfect. If the voter’s fingerprint identification does not produce a perfect match, the norm has been to allow voting if the citizen can produce identification evidence they are the person listed in the polling place. Those who do not already have their thumbprints registered in the system register their thumbprint at the polling place and fill out a form under the supervision of poll workers.

In the 2013 elections the CNE’s post-electoral audit of the fingerprints revealed 243 instances of double voting, according to the Carter Center’s 2013 Election Study. The MUD abstained from this audit, protesting the protocol for the process. Though this year the CNE responded favorably to the MUD’s petition for there to be another such audit, no protocol has been agreed to for this post-election audit.

The CNE also granted the MUD’s request to hand over the logbook for the transmission of votes from the machine to the national vote tabulation center. If the CNE does deliver on this point it would be a significant breakthrough, as it is the first time the CNE has responded favorably to this request since the 2006 Presidential elections.

The MUD also pushed for the CNE to delete 159,000 deceased voters from the electoral rolls and the recent announcement by the CNE prohibiting advertisements that mimic the MUD’s image because these deliberately aim to confuses voters

The MUD plans to ask for further guarantees regarding the behavior of military officials on election day—the Plan Republica units that protect the security conditions around polling places. This issue is likely to move to the forefront in light of recent acts of intimidation, threatened violence, and political violence directed against MUD candidates on the campaign trails.

There are two other important issues where there seems to be agreement but not full clarity as to a plan of action. One concern efforts to better supervise irregularities with assisted voting. The second concerns including MUD representatives in the CNE-managed ‘sala de soporte nacional’—a call-in resource center poll workers use to trouble shoot problems encountered at voting centers—and the sala de totalizacion—the official site for observing vote tabulations in real time.

Thus, overall, it appears that the CNE, which is on the defensive because of its low approval ratings, is trying to be more accommodating toward the MUD’s requests. However, there are a number of continuing disagreements.

The MUD was not satisfied with the CNE’s explanations for an important point regarding the electoral registry—the comparatively high number of address changes for voters who this year will vote in Amazonas and Barinas states. The MUD is also dissatisfied with what it describes as the unsatisfactory conditions of over 1000 new voting centers, where, Bello argues there are not necessary conditions for citizens to vote freely.

Henry Ramos, a candidate of Accíon Democrática candidate for the National Assembly in Caracas, and also a top MUD political representative to the CNE, said “in the face of the CNE’s toothless and consenting behavior, we are going to participate in the elections, but we are not going to stop denouncing the abuses.”

Indeed the opposition has not called into question the central issue in this election—the fact that voting is secret and vote transmission is clean. Vicente Bello noted that “the analysis of the software is complete, and it guarantees that the vote is secret….the technical audits have all been satisfactory, there has not been any development warranting complaint.

On election day the MUD should have witnesses in 90% or more of electoral centers. They will be able to witness the voting process, the citizen audit and have access to the voting acts that tally the vote of each electoral table. The MUD will be able to run its own quick count to compare with the tabulation announced by the CNE 

Though the agreements described above are positive signs, enforcement is a separate issue. Implementation will mostly depend on the CNE’s political incentives to comply.

Michael J McCarthy is a Research Fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American Studies, @macmac79