Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Paper Trails Hold the Key to Preventing Electoral Fraud

Alejandro Kirk

CARACAS, Aug 24 2004 (IPS) - In the paper receipt printed for each vote cast on the electronic voting machines used in Venezuela’s presidential referendum lies the main weakness of the opposition alliance’s cries of fraud, which the international election observers say are unwarranted.

In fact, the main demand set forth by those who fear that electronic vote fraud could be committed in the November presidential elections in the United States is printed paper ballots of the kind used in Venezuela.

"About a third of the votes (in the U.S.), 36 million, will be tabulated completely inside the new paperless, direct-recording-electronic (DRE) voting systems, on which you vote directly on a touch-screen. Unlike receipted transactions at the neighbourhood ATM, however, you get no paper record of your vote," journalist and writer Ronnie Dugger recently wrote in The Nation magazine.

Paperless systems, according to Dugger and many analysts of electronic voting systems, are vulnerable to manipulation by computer programmers working in the corporations that provide the machines, which refuse to share the codes and other details of the software used, for reasons of industrial secrecy.

Bruce Schneier, an internationally renowned security technologist, insists that "all computerised voting machines need a paper audit trail" to prevent vote-rigging.

The U.S. expert says that what is needed is a machine that "prints out a paper receipt, much like an ATM (automatic teller machine) does. The receipt is the voter’s real ballot. He looks it over, and then drops it into a ballot box…(that) contains the official votes, which are used for any recount. The voting machine has the quick initial tally."

That precisely describes the system used in the Aug. 15 presidential recall referendum in Venezuela, and is one of the main reasons that the Organisation of American States (OAS) and Carter Centre election observer missions rejected the allegations of fraud.

The other reason was that the observers carried out their own parallel samplings on the day of the referendum, which came up with results similar to the official returns that showed 59 percent of voters wanted President Hugo Chávez to finish out his term (to January 2007) compared to 41 percent who voted to remove him.

And on Saturday, an additional audit was completed by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s (1977-1981) Carter Centre, which ruled out the possibility of vote-rigging.

The recount dismissed the key "proof" on which the denunciations of fraud were based: vote tallies showing that an identical number of "Yes" votes (in favour of revoking Chávez’s mandate) were recorded by several machines.

The Carter Centre reported that it found 402 polling stations with two or three machines containing the exact same number of "Yes" votes and 311 stations with two or three machines recording the exact same total of "No" votes, and that it submitted those results to analysis by experts in statistics outside of Venezuela.

The conclusions reached by the experts, according to the Carter Centre, were that such coincidences were mathematically possible, while the fact that they affected both sides in nearly equal measure showed that there was no pattern of fraud.

Since the partial returns were released in the early morning of Monday, Aug. 16, the Democratic Coordinator opposition alliance had argued that a clever electronic fraud that was able to fool the opposition monitors as well as the international observers had been committed.

The supposed evidence was initially presented by Juan José Rendón, a Venezuelan "political consultant" living in Mexico, who describes himself as an expert in "rumourology" and propaganda – areas in which he reportedly advised former Venezuelan presidents Carlos Andrés Pérez and Rafael Caldera as well as five defence ministers in the past.

In 2001, when Rendón worked as an electoral strategist for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the Mexican state of Puebla – where the party was in power – he was accused of orchestrating a dirty propaganda war against the opposition candidates, who belonged to the governing National Action Party (PAN), the Mexican daily La Jornada reported.

Last week, Rendón appeared on Venezuelan TV showing copies of three vote tallies from voting machines in the southeastern state of Bolívar in which an identical number of votes appeared for the "Yes" option, which he said was the result of software that set a ceiling for "Yes" votes while allowing "No" votes to continue to accumulate.

But that theory was discredited when it was demonstrated that the paper receipts deposited by voters in sealed ballot boxes and the corresponding electronic votes had the same unique 32-character binary codes created at the moment the votes were cast.

For the upcoming elections for governors and mayors, the opposition is now demanding a return to the traditional manual system of the past.

It argues that ballots on which voters mark a cross are safer – even though in the districts in which the manual system was used (by a total of nearly one million voters) the "No" option won by an even greater difference: 40 points (70 percent for Chávez against 30 percent in favour of his removal).

The U.S. organisation VerifiedVoting.org, which advocates the use of "voter-verified paper ballots", says paper ballots have the advantage of being more familiar to voters.

But, it adds, "Computer-generated paper ballots can be considerably better than regular paper – barcodes and cryptography can be added to the ballot to ensure that the paper was produced at the time of the election, and to prevent ballot-box stuffing."

It was precisely these paper ballots that were used in the Aug. 15 recall referendum in Venezuela, and that led to the endorsement of the results by the OAS and Carter Centre observers, who were up to then widely considered "allies" of the opposition.

On Monday, Súmate, the Democratic Coordinator’s technical electoral branch, added its voice to those who attribute the supposed "fraud" to a vast government conspiracy that began a year ago, when the opposition started to push for a recall referendum, which was made possible by the 1999 constitution.

Súmate spokespersons said the investigation to prove that vote-rigging occurred would take "an undetermined amount of time." They thus recommended that supporters of the opposition movement "look forward" rather than allowing the debate on the allegations of fraud to paralyse them.

According to the opposition, as part of its electoral strategy, the Chávez administration spent millions of dollars on contracts with U.S. companies that specialise in public opinion, contacts with transnational oil corporations, and lobbying of the administration of President George W. Bush – an effort in which Carter himself allegedly took part.

The conspiracy theory now set forth by the Democratic Coordinator and the opposition-controlled private local TV stations argues that Chávez’s anti-imperialist rhetoric is merely a front for secret agreements aimed at favouring foreign oil companies.

Chávez’s emphasis on the stability of the oil market, the investment contracts signed in the past few months with the U.S. Texaco and ExxonMobil and the Anglo-Dutch Shell oil companies, as well as the fact that the Carter Centre and OAS quickly endorsed the official election returns, which were also eventually accepted by Washington, provide additional proof of a conspiracy, the opposition argues.

Among the main targets of the new wave of accusations are Smartmatic, the small firm based in Boca Ratón in the U.S. state of Florida that won the public tender for providing the electronic voting machines used in the referendum.

The opposition leaders say the bid was fraudulently rewarded to Smartmatic by the pro-Chávez majority on the five-member electoral council.

The little-known Smartmatic, founded in 2000 by a young Venezuelan engineer, had billed just 2.5 million dollars in annual sales up to 2003, according to the Miami Herald.

Smartmatic presented its bid for the 90 million dollar deal along with Bizta, a Venezuelan software firm, and CANTV, the privatised Venezuelan telecoms giant which, shortly before the referendum, had come in for severe criticism from the government.

However, the opposition’s attacks on Smartmatic and its president Antonio Mugica never mention the company’s association with CANTV, which is headed by Gustavo Roosen, a prominent anti-Chávez executive.

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