Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Call the opposition's bluff 

Today in Ultimas Noticias they had interviews with two of the new members of Venezuela's electoral council, the C.N.E. While they didn't go into great detail on issues they did seem reasonable. They are willing to consider not using the fingerprint reading machines the opposition has objected to, they recognized that a segment of Venezuelan society doesn't trust the electoral authorities and they want to re-establish that trust, and they are open to discussing all of these issues with the opposition.

So far so good. But then there was one statement, made by Janeth Hernandez, that struck me as quite dumb. In response to a question on what percentage of the paper ballots generated by the computerized voting system should be counted she said it can't be 100% because to do that would be to return to manual voting. Huh?!?!? That doesn't make much sense.

Let me back up for a moment. Venezuela uses touch screen computers for their voting and after each vote the computer prints out a little receipt telling you who you voted for. You confirm that the information is correct and deposit the receipt in a box. At the end of the day the receipts can be counted up to check that the numbers the computer is giving is correct. That is how the computerized system is audited.

During the Presidential Recall Referendum they audited a random sample of 1% of the boxes and found that they matched the computerized results. On the basis of that audit the Carter Center and O.A.S. declared the election results accurate. However, some segments of the opposition have continued to insist there was fraud and have demanded that in future elections all the paper receipts be counted. As a concession to this demand in last years National Assembly election they counted 47% of all the receipts (one box selected randomly at each voting site).

Still, this has not been enough for the opposition who continue to want ALL the receipts counted. Now, Ms. Hernandez's response is that to do that would be unacceptable because that would be to revert to a manual system. That is not at all true. The votes would still be transmitted electronically and tabulated by computers so you would still get one of the main benefits of automated voting - rapid results. Further, by using computers which print out receipts there would be virtually no spoiled ballots. So you still get that virtue of computerized voting.

Counting the receipts clearly still leaves you with a computerized voting system. All it means is that you are now auditing every single vote rather than just a sample. In the end it makes no difference. If you audit a random sample properly you can be certain the results were accurate. Similarly if you count every last receipt you will also be certain the vote was accurate. If a bunch of opposition poll monitors want to stand around all night counting little pieces of paper to confirm that they really did get their butts kicked let them do it.

Make no mistake, the opposition will still complain there was fraud. They will still complain the elections were not free or not fair or whatever. Losing with grace and dignity is not something the opposition knows how to do. In fact, even with the elections still six months away some opposition bloggers are already hard at work with their pre-emptive excuse making. There is nothing the C.N.E. can do to change that - that's a given.

However, there is something even more important - and that is perception. The more transparent you make the voting process the more difficult it is for the opposition to come up with complaints and the more absurd the complaints they do come up with become. How will opposition complaints about the receipts being treated with a special chemical that after an hour convert Petkoff votes into Chavez votes play in the press (and if you don't think they'll use that excuse you don't know the opposition very well)? Not well at all would be my guess. Just as the opposition's complaints about the finger-print reading machines boomeranged on them when the government agreed not to use those machines and the opposition then proceeded to boycott the elections anyways.

The C.N.E. needs to make these elections as transparent as possible. Yes, international observers have consistently verifed the integrity of the vote in Venezuela. But getting beyond that it is important to make the process as credible as possible for all Venezuelans. Further, nothing makes the opposition look quite so silly as calling their bluff and giving them what they want. In this case that will simply cause them to wind up standing naked before the whole world revealed for what they are, nothing more than a small, if vociferous, minority of Venezuelans. If nothing else, Chavez supporters need only think of it in the same terms as Oscar Wilde would:

"One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards."


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