Thursday, April 13, 2006

What elections were like before Chavez was in power 

Those following events in Venezuela closely will know that much has been made of the quality and fairness of elections there. In spite of the fact that international observers, from the Carter Center, to the O.A.S. to the European Union, have consistently said that the elections were transparent and reflected the will of the electorate the opposition has continued to cry fraud and claims that the electoral system has been set up to facilitate and hide manipulation of the vote. For example, they question why computers are used for voting instead of simple paper ballots which could be tallied manually and they also challenge the accuracy of the voter rolls.

In general I have had little to say about all this because the international observers have made it clear most of these complaints are without merit and even most Venezuelans recognize that the opposition is simply looking for an excuse to not participate in elections they are sure to lose. But in re-reading the observation report written by the International Republican Institute on the 1998 Venezuelan Presidential elections I thought it would be interesting to compare their findings to some of the ongoing complaints by the Venezuelan opposition.

The report can be found here. Please note who headed this observation mission – yes, none other than Otto Reich. So we are not likely to find any Chavista spin in this report. And remember, during these elections of 1998 Chavez was a candidate and the government agencies, the congress, and institutions such as the C.N.E. (the electoral council) were controlled by what is today the opposition.

So lets look at some of what the report contains. On page 5 we have this:

President Rafael Caldera signed Venezuela’s Organic Law on Suffrage and Political Participation on December 13, 1997. The new election law introduced two sweeping changes in the way elections are administered. First, it called for the use of voting machines to automate the elections. Second, the law curbed the influence of political parties within the country’s election institutions.

Automation quickly became the CNE’s top priority. As early as 1996, the electoral council issued a report calling for automation of the entire voting process using machines that would (1) verify the voter’s identity, (2) allow the voter to cast an electronic ballot, (3) tally the votes cast, and (4) send the totals electronically to a central counting facility. The CNE eventually opted for a less ambitious alternative: automation of the vote count (steps 3 and 4 in this list).

After a long and controversial bidding process, the CNE reached agreement on June 10, 1998, with a Spanish firm, Indra, to automate the vote. Caracas newspapers reported that Indra’s initial bid of $262 million was the most expensive of those received, but later reports indicated the fee (and the scope of work) was reduced to approximately $175 million. Nonetheless, other firms underbid Indra by tens of millions of dollars; Unisys, for instance, placed a bid for $132 million, though its proposal covered a smaller geographical area. Under its contract, Indra managed the voting machines (which the CNE chose to buy rather than lease) and provided technical assistance for both the November 8 and December 6 elections. In addition, Indra will probably be invited to provide assistance to the CNE for Venezuela’s June 1999 municipal elections.

Well, this is interesting. For all the jumping up and down and bitching about why are we using computers it was the opposition under the previous administration that MANDATED THERE USE. And then they slam the current government for following the law that THEY wrote?!?!? Imagine if they didn’t use computers to vote – the opposition would be screaming to high heaven that the government was breaking the law!!

And there are a couple more gems there too. For example, the opposition mandated that the process for identifying voters be automated too. Currently the C.N.E. uses fingerprint reading machines to do this. It does seem like overkill and the opposition constantly complains about it - but again, THEY MANDATED IT!!

Lastly, you may find it curious that they used the machines from the company that put in the MOST EXPENSIVE bid. Strange, huh? Well, welcome to how things were under the Fourth Republic. The country wasn’t exactly Switzerland before Chavez took over.

Then on page 6 we have this:

A third major change to the electoral system came on May 28, 1998, when Venezuela’s Congress amended the new election law to separate the upcoming elections into three rounds in order to simplify the voting process. Prior to this amendment, balloting was to be held on December 6 for every elected office in the land, with a total of 3,362 posts to be filled. After a month of debate, however, both chambers of Congress offered broad support for electoral reforms advanced by the Convergencia party and supported by deputies from AD and COPEI. Elections were held November 8 for the entire Congress (189 deputies and 48 senators were elected directly), 23 state governors (including Vargas, a new state carved out of the Federal District), and state legislatures (a total of 374 state deputies). The presidential vote was held December 6, and elections for mayors and other municipal officials are now slated for June 1999.

Some of the smaller parties and independent candidates objected to the change in the electoral calendar, saying the proposal to separate the national and local elections came too late and was designed to strengthen AD and COPEI. They argued that if the elections were held as planned, the traditional parties would lose seats in Congress as well as several important governorships and mayoralties. In the event, both parties lost ground in Congress anyway.

The opposition complains about how the Chavez administration cheats and is underhanded, doing everything it can to give itself an advantage. Yet look at this little trick the opposition pulled off to try and deny Chavez a sweeping victory. Instead of having the elections be for the Presidency and Congress at the same time, as they always had been, and allow Chavez’s coattails to help his party to get a majority in the Congress they moved up the date of the Congressional elections so that Chavez wouldn’t be on the same ballot and hopefully his candidates wouldn’t win as many seats.

How slimy and underhanded is that? Yet, did Chavez bitch and moan and pull out of the election? Nope. He sucked it up, played ball, and won.

On page 7 they get to the electoral registry:

Voting is mandatory in Venezuela, and citizens are automatically inscribed in the voter registry (registro electoral) upon obtaining the official identification card (cédula de identidad). During the registration period that ended July 26, 1998, the CNE added 900,000 new voters (mostly Venezuelans who had recently reached voting age, which is 18) to the registry, pushing the total number of registered voters to 10.9 million. The CNE also eliminated from the list the names of 500,000 people who had either died or moved.

Nonetheless, the CNE’s registration effort — and the integrity of the voter registry itself — has been subject to intense criticism. It is widely agreed that as many as two million citizens are unregistered. In addition, commentators writing in leading newspapers repeatedly charged that the CNE, allegedly influenced by representatives of the traditional political parties, purposefully limited its registration drive to prevent pro-Chávez voters from participating in the elections. Underscoring the CNE’s poor record keeping in this department, newspaper reports in early November indicated that six dead people appeared on the ballot as candidates.

So they were intentionally trying to keep millions of people off the electoral roles to keep them from voting for Chavez. And I thought only the Republicans in the U.S. did stuff like that! What’s more, while they complain about some dead people still being registered to vote under the current CNE when they were running the show they not only had dead voters they had dead candidates!

On page 11 I ran across this interesting fact:

According to CNE procedures, results are transmitted to the corresponding State Electoral Council’s counting center (centro de totalización), and thence to the CNE’s central counting facility in Caracas. Once the results are transmitted, the voting table president and the machine’s technician are instructed to turn their keys again to allow the machine to print the official tally document. Each machine prints two original copies of each voting table’s tally document, each of which produces four carbon copies (for a total of ten per voting table). This process is repeated for each table at the voting center.

This is sort of technical but during the Recall Referendum the opposition complained mightily about the vote results being transmitted to the central tabulating center BEFORE the vote tallies were printed out by each machine at the polling station. There is logic to this complaint because in theory the central computers could be adding up all the results, manipulating them, and then changing the vote totals on the individual machines that would then print out a sheet to match. Yet when they were running the elections they... did the transmission and then printed the voting results. Another case of “do as we say, not as we did”.

From page 12:

Only after results are transmitted and official tally documents are printed is the ballot box opened and its contents transferred to an official storage box. Copies of the various official documents produced during the day, including the official tally document, are placed in a pair of envelopes together with the machine’s Flash Card, the storage device upon which the machine electronically records election results. At this point, military personnel assume responsibility for transporting the election materials to central collection facilities at the state and national levels

Another big grievance has been that not all the paper ballots printed by the voting machines get counted. That is, the computers they currently use print paper receipts that indicate how a person voted and that then goes in a box. You can count the ballots in the box as a test to confirm the result the computer gives. The C.N.E. has done this but only with a random sample of 47% of the boxes. The opposition claims they should count 100% of the ballots. Yet when the opposition ran the voting in 1998 (and the machines they used had punch cards that were kept in boxes and could have been counted) they DIDN’T COUNT ANYTHING. This is getting repetitive but again its “do as we say, not as we did”.

One last complaint frequently heard by the opposition is that Chavez never had a mandate to carry out a sweeping transformation of the government, or implement large-scale social programs, or change the way the oil industry was run. They often assert he ran little more than a “good government” program and vowed to reign in corruption, but not much more. Yet look at what the I.R.I. says about his mandate:

Early indications are that the policies of President Chávez will be more moderate than those promised by Candidate Chávez. On the campaign trail, Chávez issued socialist promises of more generous government handouts and nationalist curbs on foreign capital. At times he suggested he would nationalize new foreign oil installations and suspend international debt repayments. In his first week in office, the new agriculture minister revealed new measures to protect the agricultural sector from imports, and other officials announced the creation of military brigades to take part in economic development activities ranging from health to road construction.

So he “issued socialist promises of more generous government handouts” and now he is doing precisely that. Sounds like a man means what he says and says what he means. What a breath of fresh air.


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