Sunday, November 20, 2005

Why SUMATE is needed more in the U.S. than Venezuela 

What a coincidence, I was going to do a post involving Maria Corina Machado today but the New York Times beet me to the punch doing a profile of her. I could take the time talk about who she is and what she does but Juan Forero did it for me and seeing as he writes much better than I do let me just rip off some of his article:

SHE'S the Venezuelan government's most detested adversary, a young woman with a quick wit and machine-gun-fast delivery who often appears in Washington or Madrid to denounce what she calls the erosion of democracy under President Hugo Chávez.

In a highly polarized country, María Corina Machado has emerged as perhaps the most divisive figure after Mr. Chávez, a woman who is either beloved or reviled.

Ms. Machado, 38, attractive and a fluent English speaker, is lionized by her allies in the opposition as a worldly sophisticate fighting for democracy. But she is demonized by the government, which characterizes her as a member of a corrupt elite that is doing the bidding of the much reviled Bush administration.

Ms. Machado does not hide her close relations with Washington, which has provided financial aid to Súmate, the anti-Chávez, election-monitoring organization she helps run. In May, she infuriated the government when she met with President Bush at the White House, and she further antagonized officials in September by announcing that Súmate had received a fresh infusion of $107,000 from Washington.

Ms. Machado casts her role as that of a watchdog uncovering the electoral shenanigans she says Mr. Chávez uses to consolidate his hold, a precarious job in Venezuela these days.

"You can push and push, but at some point they are going to get tired and say, 'It is time to get her off our backs,' " Ms. Machado said.

That time arrived for Ms. Machado in September 2004. In a case that Human Rights Watch says is riddled with violations of due process, the attorney general's office charged her and three other Súmate officials with treason and other crimes for having accepted American financing to mount a referendum last year asking voters whether they wished to remove Mr. Chávez from the presidency.

Accepting prosecution arguments that Súmate's work amounted to an effort to "destroy the nation's republican form," a Venezuelan judge ruled in July that the four should face trial.

The trial is set for Dec. 6, and a conviction could carry a 16-year prison term.

While one of the most visible public figures in Venezuela, Ms. Machado is sparing with details about her personal life, one of comfort and privilege.

She was the eldest of four girls growing up in a conservative, staunchly Catholic family. There was the elite Catholic girls' school in Caracas; the boarding school in Wellesley, Mass.; the trips to Europe; the occasional escapes from Venezuela's teeming capital to her family's airy mountain retreat.

"It was a childhood protected from contact with reality," she admits.

AT first, though, she followed in the footsteps of her father, Henrique Machado, studying engineering at Catholic University in Caracas. She married young and in 1990 began her career working to improve quality controls in an auto plant in Valencia.

Three years later, she was back in Caracas, having decided to join her mother in running a home for 140 abandoned and troubled children.

Her life took a turn in 2001. That was the year her marriage broke up, but also year three of Mr. Chávez's rule, and Ms. Machado and her friends were growing worried.

She now says it was concern over "tensions" that prompted them to form Súmate, with the purpose of mounting the referendum on Mr. Chávez. "The idea was not, how do we get rid of this government," Ms. Machado said. "The idea was how do we resolve the profound social differences."

That account, of Súmate as an organization independent of other groups intent on removing Mr. Chávez from office, does not squarely line up with history. Súmate, in fact, earned the government's undying enmity when it loudly questioned the results of the August 2004 referendum, even though international observers said Mr. Chávez had won handily.

The Chávez camp also took a dim view of the fact that Ms. Machado was in the Miraflores Palace on the day in April 2002 when Pedro Carmona, an opposition businessman, installed an interim government just hours after Mr. Chávez was overthrown in a coup.

With a sigh, Ms. Machado says that she and her mother were in the palace that day only to visit Mr. Carmona's wife, a family friend. "I have a clear conscience," she said. "There was no double meaning in what happened."


She said she understood why so many Venezuelans support the populist government, which has showered the poor with social programs underwritten by a flood of oil money. "We have to recognize the positive things that have been done," she said.

Still, she has not stopped criticizing the president, who she charges is increasingly intolerant. "The intimidation has given us more reasons to keep working," she said. "Our organization seeks to preserve citizens' rights, and the way to do that is by exercising those rights."

Certainly a fairly balanced and interesting article. The one thing that made me gag was that she went to the Presidential Palace in the middle of a coup to visit a friend?!?! Yeah, sure, any normal, rational person would have done the same thing – NOT.

In any event Ms. Machado herself was not supposed to be what this post was about. Rather I wanted to discuss some of the comments she made on SUMATE’s website regarding the upcoming legislative elections. Here is what was published by SUMATE:

Maria Corina Machado sent a message to the international observers: “observers, please don’t ask the Venezuelan people to accept conditions that you wouldn’t accept in your countries”.

She asked them: “Would you accept going to vote in your countries with an Electoral Council that was clearly controlled by the government, illegally named, and that systematically violates the laws of your country? Would you accept elections without all votes being counted and with a registry of voters that has increased by more than 20% in the past year and where more than 30% of the citizens have had their voting centers changed and the voting list is not handed over to the parties so that it can be audited? Would you accept to vote which doesn’t guarantee the secrecy of the vote and that permits the government to instantly know who has voted and who hasn’t?"

Ms. Machado makes a very good, and completely appropriate, point here. No one, and certainly not international observers, should expect Venezuelan’s to vote under conditions they wouldn’t accept in their own country. With that in mind lets look at how elections are carried out elsewhere and how they stack up against the Venezuelan system. Now, I can’t speak to what European Union observers deal with in their own countries as I don’t know anything about their electoral systems. However, there are also observers from the Organization of American States and I certainly can speak to how elections are carried out in one of its member states – the United States. So lets see how voting systems in the U.S. compare to those in Venezuela:

First, Machado asks if others would accept an electoral council controlled by the government. Well, Ms. Machado, that would actually be a step up by U.S. standards. In the U.S. its not just that partisan elected officials control the voting system. Katherine Harris of Florida and James Blackwell of Ohio were both die hard Republican elected officials. Its actually worse. The people who oversee the voting are often times the same people directly involved in running one of the campaigns. For example, the head of the Ohio electoral commission in 2004 was actually the Co-Chair of the Ohio Re-Elect Bush campaign. So the voting rules were established and the voting was carried out by the leader of one of the campaigns. And we all know who eked out a victory in Ohio. So Ms. Machado, the level of partisanship among Venezuelan electoral officials isn’t even close to being on the level as in the U.S. And as for laws being violated, the election of the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2000 was clearly unconstitutional so lets not even go there.

Next she poses the question of accepting that not all the votes are counted. Surely no-one should accept elections where not all votes are counted. Yet people in the U.S. do precisely that. In the last Presidential election there were instances of thousands of votes just disappearing into thin air Even more bizarrely the computers sometimes just gave Bush thousands of extra votes.

But what I think Ms. Machado is really getting at hear is that their needs to be some sort of auditing system that allows the vote totals to be verified. Venezuelan voting machines print out paper ballots which can then be counted and compared to the actual vote totals in an audit to ensure their accuracy. This is how the Carter Center and the O.A.S. were able to verify that there was no fraud in the Recall Referendum last year. In the U.S. no such system exists. Most computer voting machines have no paper trail and are therefore a complete black box that can perform any kind of manipulation of the votes without anyone being able to detect it. Further, in the U.S. there is almost never any type of audit carried out, and certainly never one by international observers. In fact one of the main recommendations of the Commission on Federal Election Reform (CFER), chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker, was that the U.S. use machines that print paper reciepts and that at least 1% of these ballots be compared to the computer tallies. Once again, Venezuela’s system, whatever its shortcoming, clearly bests the system used in the United States and in fact serves as a model for reform of the U.S. electoral system.

Next Ms. Machado talks about potential problems with Venezuela’s voter registry. It is odd that Ms. Machado would insinuate this as audits carried out by her very own organization, SUMATE, on the voter rolls before the recall referendum showed there were very few errors in it – less than 1% in fact.

Plus voting rolls are clearly manipulated in the U.S. For example, the state of Florida, which handed Bush his first victory, incorrectly purged thousands of African-American voters (who tend to vote Democratic) from the rolls. That alone was sufficient to hand the election to Bush. Worse still, according to the Carter-Baker report, (page 12) there are 140,000 registered to vote in other states who are also registered to vote in Florida! Hence these people can vote more than once. Nationwide it is estimated there are millions of such duplicate registrations.

Worse still, according to the Carter-Baker report (p. 22) only two states in the U.S., North Carolina and Oregon, audit their voter rolls leaving most states with suspect voting rolls. Some are clearly bogus such as that of Alaska which has more registered voters than it has voting aged adults. So once again, at the very least, Venezuela is in no worse shape (and probably a good deal better) than “the worlds greatest democracy”

Lastly, Ms. Machado worries about the secrecy of the vote somehow being compromised. This has to do with the voting list books and the voting machines both being automated so that they could in theory be compared to determine how people voted by matching the sequence of people being checked into the voting center and the sequence of votes being cast. This is a moot issue that has already been resolved in that the Venezuelan electoral authorities have decided not to use the automated voting books.

In summary what do we see here? What we see that whatever shortcomings the Venezuelan electoral system has it is at least the equal, and in many cases superior, to the voting systems used in the United States. Of course, one could say that the people in the U.S. who run the elections are honest and are more trustworthy than their Venezuelan counterparts. But that is just an article of faith, nothing more. Americans don’t know that their votes are counted accurately, they just assume they are.

Venezuelans don’t have to make any such assumptions. Their electoral process can be, and is, audited. And their electoral council actively seeks out outside monitors who can verify the accuracy of their vote count. In short they have an electoral system that people in the United States can only wish they had. Maria Corina Machado and her fellow Venezuelans can cast their ballots safe in the knowledge that their voting system is indeed very good by international standards.


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