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Venezuela: Referendum Updates August 21, 2004

By Alexandra Beech

International observers made a grave mistake when they applauded the referendum as it took place on the 15th. As Carter was saying that “everything is going very well”, television networks showed long lines that were barely moving, fingerprint technology that wasn’t working, soldiers that were overstepping their functions by demanding to see id cards, and government supporters who were menacingly driving by some polling centers. Yes, this was “going well” in an increasingly volatile country. But things weren’t going well.

After placing their stamp of approval on the referendum in the media while it was still taking place, (which violated CNE regulations forbidding international observers to opine during the process) neither the OAS nor Carter could address important issues only one day later. After all, they had their international reputations to preserve.

Since then, the absurdity of their behavior has only increased.

First, they endorsed the CNE’s first results, claiming that their own quick count had yielded similar results. (Their quick count was based on the tally sheets which the opposition is questioning).

The Wall Street Journal reports that “one Carter official acknowledged that their initial monitoring of Sunday's vote left some questions unanswered. Venezuelan election officials had agreed with the opposition to audit 1% of the 19,200 voting machines -- or 192 machines. The Carter Center was supposed to audit five machines, and the OAS another eight, of that number, according to officials from the Carter Center. On the night of the vote, however, the Carter Center and OAS audited only one machine each…” In addition, “wider audit also had problems. Just 84 of a planned 192 audits were carried out, according to the National Electoral Council. The government says opposition members were present at 64 of those, but opposition officials say they witnessed just 27 audits. Furthermore, some of the government's audits weren't carried out properly, officials from the Carter Center say. For instance, officials counted the total number of ballots, but not how many were "yes" votes and how many were "no" votes.”

Then Jimmy Carter said he planned to leave Venezuela to celebrate his wife’s birthday the day before opposition protesters were shot at point blank as they protested the referendum results.

Then Carter and Gaviria called another press conference, still endorsing the CNE’s results, but questioning the electronic process. Then they devised and conducted audits which the opposition – which had requested an investigation under different terms – rejected. The audits were based on a random selection of 200 voting stations, selected by a computer program – designed by a CNE advisor. More absurd still were CNE staffers, government representatives, and international observers participating in the audits, when it was the conduct of the CNE and the government which the opposition had called into question. By devising audits without the presence of the opposition which requested it, (and without the approval of the CNE’s own Vice President), the Carter Center and OAS seemed desperate to get the Venezuelan process over with.

Why did the Democratic Coordinator, with all of its defects, need to be humored with a thorough audit of the technology? Because the 27 parties and dozens of civil organizations which make up the Democratic Coordinator represent 40% of voters (if there was no fraud), and 60% (if there was), and there is no way to determine the truth without an exhaustive investigation of everyone’s concerns. Anyone who has followed Venezuela for the past two years knows why the opposition deserves a thorough investigation of the referendum process, even if it leads nowhere. If every signature for the referendum was scrutinized in the reparos – the most ridiculous process in the history of humankind - then why couldn’t more time be spent on the referendum?

According to American Enterprise Institute resident scholar John Lott, an expert interviewed by Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal, "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." Given that Smartmatic technology was this vulnerable, an investigation of the electoral machines should be a minimum requirement to resolve the crisis.

Besides the electoral machines, other questionable issues need to be investigated. Why have paper ballots appeared in some areas, far from the military garrisons in charged of guarding them? Why were pro-government supporters “migrated” to manual voting centers? Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Enrique ter Horst writes for the International Herald Tribune: "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."

Analyst Miguel Octavio writes: At a school with two [voting stations], one with three machines, the other with two. FOUR of them have identical numbers of SI votes. At a school with two [voting stations], one with two machines, the third one with one, all THREE have the same number of votes. In Aragua state (a traditional pro-Chavez state), out of the 440 machines, 120 have two machines with the same number. At the Escuela Basica Rosa Amelia Flores in Aragua, all 6 machines showed exactly the same number of SI votes: 114. In Carabobo state it is 22% of all machines, in Zulia 33% of all machines. In Bolivar state, 62 out of 117 machines have pairs of the same number of votes for the SI.”

Even though not one Venezuelan opposition leader or pro-opposition analyst to date has accepted the referendum results, as time passes it become more evident that any foul play will be difficult to prove, not least because of the international observers’ unwillingness or incapacity to investigate the more complicated aspects of the electronic process, such as programming.

Yet if the Carter Center and OAS ignore the potential fraud which took place in Venezuela, they are setting a dangerous precedent for other electronic elections around the world. Aviel Rubins, a John Hopkins expert on e-voting, who was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, said: “"I am very concerned about what the controversy in Venezuela means for the U.S. elections…Our e-voting machines do not have paper-ballot backups, for the most part, and if the election is close -- which apparently Venezuela was not -- we will not have the opportunity for recounting."

Besides having an important impact of the future of Venezuela’s stability and on US elections, the recall referendum will also impact how countries endorse or reject their leaders. A fair and transparent process in Venezuela could have far-reaching effects in democracies throughout the developing world. Referenda could deter oppression and eliminate ineffective governments. This is a perfect opportunity to provide mechanisms which deter oppression and increase freedom. or

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