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Venezuela Update - August 14, 2004

By Alexandra Beech,

As Venezuelans count down the hours towards the recall referendum on Sunday, disturbing issues linger which could affect the outcome of the vote. During the past few days, the opposition has focused on the possibility of fraud through the manipulation of electronic data. However, that strategy has failed to address other critical issues which may affect the referendum results, and they are not based on the electoral machines.

Data manipulation will be nearly impossible, since so many controls have been implemented to ensure accuracy. “Many people would have to agree to commit fraud”, including those who designed, developed, installed and certified the program, among many others, said Sumate representative Alejander Alcala, who considers that type of fraud highly unlikely. Each machine is encoded with a password to send data on a specific telephone line to a main server; and tampering with the machines or telephone lines will immediately be detected, since the server verifies during a limited space of time that the location and line are compatible. CANTV, the telephone company in charged of transmitting data and providing technical support, does not have access to the data.

Smartmatic, the company which manufactured the machines, will count the electronic votes and provide the results to the National Electoral Council (CNE). Smartmatic insisted on providing the results despite the CNE´s insistence that it should be the electoral authorities who count the votes. This was a “turnkey project”.

However, questionable events and practices have taken place prior to the referendum which requires close scrutiny, since they could determine the outcome of the vote.

Voting Centers - Irregularities

This evening, I received a call from the member of a voting table in Anaco, because the Dr. Maria Auxiliadora Alvarado, the President of the Municipal Electoral Board of Anaco had suddenly been replaced by two strangers. Dr. Alvarado had supervised seventeen voting centers in Anaco with 49,000 voters since last February. During that time, she had trained table members and prepared voting materials. She told me that on Thursday at 4:30 pm, she was approached by two women with a letter stamped by the CNE, informing her that her functions as president had ceased; in addition, the letter stated that that she would be replaced by the two women before her. This caused concern among the table members, since it took place three days before the referendum.

I called the Democratic Coordinator, who suggested that I call the OAS and the Carter Center. After a few calls, I reached Jacqueline Mosquero, a Carter Center representative in charged of receiving complaints. When I described to her the event in Anaco, she said that since noon on Friday, the Carter Center had received similar complaints. The presidents of two others municipal electoral boards, including the one in Baruta, had also been replaced. Why the CNE would replace experienced electoral staff days before the referendum with unknown workers is highly questionable, especially following recent comments by National Guard General Jesús Wilhem Becerra, who said that the National Armed Forces would assume a greater a role in the upcoming referendum, ”from passive to active”, including closely supervising citizens as they vote. Regulations allow one officer per machine, whose main role is to maintain general order.

In addition, by Friday evening, many electoral table members were still waiting to receive the materials they required to work at the tables during the referendum.

International Observers

Currently, there are two types of international observers in Caracas - those accredited the National Electoral Council (CNE), and those invited by the Democratic Coordinator. Only those accredited will be allowed to enter the voting centers and observe the process. Besides the Carter Center and the OAS, the only technical observers during the referendum, the National Elections Council invited dozens of members of electoral commissions around the world. In addition, it invited special guests, including filmmaker Michael Moore, linguist Noam Chomsky, American politician Ralph Nader, actor Danny Glover, Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, and a few others. The CNE failed to invite the European Union before the five weeks it required to provide technical observers, but invited pro-government European legislators. In addition, the CNE refused to accredit those invited by the opposition umbrella Democratic Coordinator, opening questions about the fairness of the selection process for international observers. Also concerning is that observers will not be allowed in the rooms where manual votes will be counted.

Nationalized Citizens

While Venezuelan citizens must register their intention to vote with the National Elections Council, newly nationalized citizens who participated in the recent frenzied nationalization program (so frenzied, in fact that national id director Cabellos´ signature appears as an X) were automatically registered during their nationalization process. The exact number of new citizens is tough to tally. Between August 2003, and July 2004, the electoral registry skyrocketed from 12,012,118 voters to 14,245,615. Of those, 2,378,829 were registered for the first time, which includes both young people and newly nationalized citizens. Newly nationalized citizens would have a higher incentive to vote in favor of the government, either at the referendum or in presidential elections, since many are poor and receive benefits through the recently created social programs.

Fingerprint Identification technology

For the referendum, (and at the insistence of pro-government CNE Director Jorge Rodriguez), the government spent $66 million for the purchase of AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) Technology. The system was created by Cogent Systems, an American Company “founded 14 years ago by US citizens”, according to a company statement. Cogent states that ¨the performance of a system” is based on ”four major factors”, which include “Accuracy”, “Database size/composition”, “Number of fingers used”, and “Throughput – how many comparisons can be done in a set time.”

In addition, the statement says that “AFIS systems are impacted by the amount of data, the quality of the images, and whether what is stored is a rolled or a flat image.”

Among the disturbing issues I discovered during my investigation is that the largest database that Cogent Systems has ever created is for 9 million people, well below the 14.2 million voters who would conceivably vote on Sunday. In addition, its database for Sunday starts at zero, which means the database will be created on Sunday during the actual vote. That means that as people provide their fingerprints, AFIS will compare that fingerprint with those provided during the day. Cogent has not tested the system in Venezuela prior to the vote. Furthermore, while Cogent Systems has “deployed fingerprint technology” in 45 countries, it has only provided machines intended for an election once, and that was for a country with considerably less voters.

Among the groups potentially affected by AFIS are elderly voters. As human beings age, their fingerprints often fade, leaving their fingers with unidentifiable ridges. According to Alcala, 1,418,498 registered voters (or 10% of the registry) are over 65 years old. In addition, 3% of the population lacks fingerprints due to their occupations or geographical locations where substances such as saline or acids are present in high concentrations (mechanics, residents of Salinas de Araya in Cumana). How will CNE authorities handle the cases in which voters simply cannot provide a fingerprint?

Perhaps the most disturbing fact entails the antennae and satellite system used for the AFIS transmissions. To transmit data, AFIS depends on antennae, which the electoral authorities purchased for twice their cost on the Internet. (CNE paid $1200 for each, despite their online cost of $600) Under normal circumstances, both the antenna at the location of the AFIS machine and the antenna at the location where the information is stored should be certified by specialized engineers to ensure that the information is being transmitted to the satellite. However, the CNE authorities did not certify the antennae, leaving open the question of whether the AFIS technology will actually function on Sunday. During recent weeks, pro-government workers have told many potential voters (especially in poor neighborhoods) that the fingerprint technology will be detect how they voted, creating fear and uncertainty in voters. Given the high probability that these machines will simply fail on Sunday, or that they will generate more problems than solutions, I have to wonder why the government invested $66 million in them.

Manual Count

Out of 8,300 voting centers, 4,000 in rural areas will provide a manual voting system. 1.5 million voters will participate under a system with less controls than those who vote electronically, especially since pro-government table members will count the votes at the end of the day. The table members could discretionally annul pro-opposition votes, especially since international observers will not be allowed to witness the count.


Most Venezuelans want a fair and accurate referendum process on Sunday. After years of marches and tensions, the referendum may be the last peaceful recourse to solve to the country’s crisis.

But fairness should prevail, not only on Sunday, but also on the days before and after the referendum.

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