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Why the EU Skipped the Chavez Vote

By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY / The Wall Street Journal / The Americas

August 27, 2004; Page A13 - Given how Jimmy Carter's presidency turned out, it is not surprising that he is desperate to salvage his legacy as an international election observer. That effort took a turn for the worse this week when verifiable reports emerged conflicting directly with Mr. Carter's rendition of what happened in the Aug. 15 Venezuelan recall referendum. The Carter claims of omniscient oversight aside, testimony from reliable independent sources shows that the process did not meet any impartial standards of fairness.

To start with, observer rules were absurd, so much so that although the European Union wanted to play an observer role, it graciously declined in the interest of honesty. "Unfortunately, it has not been possible to secure with the Venezuelan electoral authorities the conditions to carry out an observation in line with the Union's standard methodology," the European Commission declared.

Restraints included the fact that observers were not to be allowed to independently audit the entire vote, as they had demanded in hotly contested battles like Peru's, when Alberto Fujimori ran for a third time in 2000; and in Chile's 1988 plebiscite restoring democracy. Moreover, both the number of observers and their movement was to be restricted.

Such conditions were clear impediments to observers yet implausibly, Mr. Carter claimed in a letter to the Journal this week that his center "observed the entire voting process without limitation or restraint." Mr. Carter's rosy review of the behavior of President Hugo Chávez contrasts sharply with that of other observers.

Two observers working on behalf of the Organization of American States, writing in Canada's Globe and Mail, on Tuesday tried to answer the question of whether the outcome reflects the will of the people. "Yes," write Ken Frankel and John Graham, "if the focus is on the election-day process. International observers have not uncovered evidence of significant manipulation or voter harassment during voting day or the post-election audits." But "No," they say, "if the focus includes Mr. Chávez's pre-election maneuvers that tilted the table in his favor through control of the electoral apparatus and indirect intimidation."

By now, the Chávez intimidation factor is legendary and Mr. Carter's practice of ignoring it, as he did in his letter to the Journal, is baffling. Messrs. Frankel and Graham do not ignore it: "Thousands of citizens who had signed the petition that triggered the referendum lost jobs, pensions or suffered harassment. Many feared that their choice would be known to the government, and the ubiquitous presence of machine-gun-toting soldiers inside and outside the polling stations reinforced this concern."

Venezuela's most important non-governmental election watchdog, Súmate, also strongly contradicts many of Mr. Carter's claims. For example, Mr. Carter submits that "international machines were tested in advance" and that "extra care was taken to ensure secrecy and accuracy." But Súmate tells a far different story. It says that while the original recall rules called for manual voting, Mr. Chávez insisted on importing an electronic system and chose Smartmatic voting machines without a transparent bidding process. One ostensible reason for going with Smartmatic was that its machines also create paper ballots, which could be used to audit the vote. But as it turned out, an impartial audit of those ballots was not allowed.

Súmate's list of grievances does not stop there, and a number of its claims are irrefutable. There was, it says, a "severe limitation to participation in the auditing required by any automated voting system: Auditing the software used by the machines was never permitted, the source code was never released, and finally, access was never allowed into the Totalization Room of CNE [National Electoral Council]."

To support his case, Mr. Carter keeps repeating in the press that Súmate had the same "quick count" as he did. This only creates confusion because "quick count" totals are merely the sum of totals coming from Chávez-controlled voting software.

The only way to check the accuracy of the government's claim of "victory" was to count ballots. But as Súmate describes in clear detail, Mr. Chávez blocked that process: "When the authorities decided against counting the ballots, the CNE agreed to a very limited audit with the other actors of the process, to count the ballots of only 1% of the ballot boxes, in other words, 192 ballot boxes. Only 76 of the 192 ballot boxes were audited, concentrated in 20 of the 336 municipalities around the country. Promoters of 'SI' [Chávez's opposition] were present at only 27 of these audits while international observers were present at only 10 tables. Inexplicably, this did not represent a cause for concern or alarm to the international observers who endorsed the partial results issued by the CNE without that fundamental piece of information."

Súmate says that contrary to Mr. Carter's claims, it never agreed to a second audit because, "Once again, inexplicably, the international observers designed an audit together with the CNE without taking into account the petitions of the group requesting the audit, transgressing the universal standard in electoral processes."

Finally Súmate reminds us of Mr. Chávez's painstaking review of petition signatures calling for the recall vote, "an exhaustive verification" in which "every signature was checked not by one, but by three different committees of the CNE. Now, this same CNE, inexplicably, prevents a count for transparency's sake of the ballots that represent definitive proof of the elector's will." Mr. Carter's complicity in the prevention of a reliable vote count was a betrayal of Venezuelan democracy.

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