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Observers Rush to Judgment in Caracas


August 20, 2004; Page A13 - When Jimmy Carter went to Cuba in 2002, Fidel reveled in the photo-ops with a former U.S. president. Mr. Carter seemed to think he was heroically "engaging" the Cuban despot. But in the documentary "Dissident," celluloid captures something most Americans didn't see: Castro giggling sardonically as Mr. Carter lectures the Cuban politburo on democracy. That foreshadowed what happened when the media splash ended and the Nobel laureate went home: Dissidents he went to "help" today languish in gulag punishment cells.

I was reminded this week of how Castro so artfully used Mr. Carter when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez took a page from his Cuban mentor's playbook. On Monday, the Carter Center along with the head of the monumentally meaningless Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria, endorsed Chávez's claims of victory in the Venezuelan recall referendum, rather too hastily it now seems.

The problem was that the "observers" hadn't actually observed the election results. Messrs. Carter and Gaviria were only allowed to make a "quick count," that is look at the tally sheets spat out by a sample of voting machines. They were not allowed to check this against ballots the machines issued to voters as confirmation that their votes were properly registered.

If there was fraud, as many Venezuelans now suspect, it could have been discovered if the ballots didn't match the computer tallies. The tallies alone were meaningless. The problem was clear by Tuesday but it didn't stop the State Department spokesman Adam Ereli from chiming in. "The people of Venezuela have spoken," he proclaimed.

Mr. Carter marveled at the huge turnout on Sunday. Venezuelans, who have been voting two-to-one against Chávez in opinion polls, waited in absurdly long lines to cast more meaningful votes on electronic machines. But did the machine really record the vote as registered on the paper ballot?

According to experts, it is relatively simple to tamper with encryption codes in electronic voting machines. American Enterprise Institute resident scholar John Lott says, "You can easily write a program that tells the voting machine to record something different in its memory than what it prints out on the receipt that is to be dropped in the ballot box."

To rely on the tally sheets alone, as Messrs. Carter and Gaviria did, is to abdicate the heavy responsibility an observer accepts when overseeing an election. A Venezuelan who is a former U.N. deputy high commissioner of human rights wrote of his suspicions in yesterday's International Herald Tribune (right beside a pro-Chávez New York Times editorial, by the way). Enrique ter Horst cited as cause for concern the fact that "the papers the new machines produced . . . were not added up and compared with the final numbers these machines produce at the end of the voting process, as the voting-machine manufacturer had suggested."

An exit poll done by the prominent U.S. polling firm of Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates showed 59% of voters opposed to Chávez and only 41% in favor. (Messrs. Penn and Schoen both worked for Bill Clinton in his 1996 re-election bid.) Raj Kumar, a principal at the polling firm, told me yesterday that the firm has gone back to try to explain the 34-point spread between the PSB poll and the results announced by the government. "While there are certainly biases that can impact any exit poll, we do not see any factor that could account for such a significant difference," he said.

At three o'clock on Monday morning two members of the National Electoral Council (CNE) who are politically opposed to Chávez announced that they had been shut out of the audit process and warned the public that the established protocol had been violated. Some 50 minutes later pro-Chávez CNE member Francisco Carrasquero emerged alone to proclaim Chávez the winner.

There is much to question. Mr. ter Horst cites one example: "In the town of Valle de la Pascua, where papers were counted at the initiative of those manning the voting center, the "Yes" vote had been cut by more than 75%, and the entire voting material was seized by the national guard shortly after the difference was established." "Yes" was a vote to remove Chávez.

There is also a reasonable accusation that the number of "Yes" votes at some polling stations was "capped" by software tampering. The charge is supported by the discovery, in some locations, of two or three machines recording the exact same number of "Yes" votes and substantially more "No" votes. The opposition is claiming that it has proof that this occurred at 500 polling stations. Again, if Mr. Carter and the OAS observers had demanded an open auditing process instead of blindly endorsing government claims, cheating would have been uncovered. But Chávez refused open audits and the observers went along with him.

In the desperate attempt to divert attention from observer negligence, few have been as ardent as Mr. Gaviria, who is flailing about in the waters he helped muddy. He has no idea whether there was fraud because he never conducted an audit. So now he floats the idea that the whole problem is that the PSB exit poll was flawed. Yeah, right.

The CNE is now engaged in a minimal audit with Mr. Carter and the OAS. But the opposition has wisely refused to participate on the grounds that the ballot boxes and the machines have been in Chávez control since Sunday and based on what is already known, further tampering can't be ruled out. As of yet there has not been an agreement on how to conduct a fair audit.

Chávez has already said that his "victory" cannot be reversed. To underscore that point on Tuesday, a pro-Chávez gang opened fire on a group protesting that the referendum had been rigged, killing one woman and injuring others.

There is some speculation that Messrs. Carter and Gaviria threw a veil over a gross deception on the grounds that it will prevent further violence. But Americans have a right to expect a sterner approach from the administration of George W. Bush. State's endorsement of this referendum without a fair audit is a sorry betrayal of not only the Venezuelan people but American ideals. It is tantamount to yielding to terrorism. Observing Washington's supine reaction, Chávez will not hesitate to escalate his efforts to restore authoritarianism on the South American continent.

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