Thursday, June 08, 2006

Fishing for fraud 

New presidential elections are fast approaching in Venezuela and all major opinion polls indicate barring something dramatic Chavez should win easily. So what is an opposition that absolutely cannot stand Chavez and has never wanted to recognize his legitimacy to do? Simple, impugn the electoral system and find a convenient excuse to back out elections claiming they are somehow rigged.

The opposition has multiple ways to do this but right now they are focusing on one; attacking the electoral registry, known as the RE by its initials in Spanish. The opposition has for quite some time complained that the RE, which has about 14 million voters registered in it, is replete with errors. Worse still, they claim that the Chavez administration has intentionally manipulated it to carry out fraud. Without a thorough audit of the RE, the opposition says, they cannot trust it and will not participate in the elections.

Of course, there is a little problem with the opposition's position here. And that is that the RE WAS thoroughly audited in late 2005 by an independent outside agency which found that it was a largely accurate and was completely appropriate to serve as the basis for elections. The audit was carried out by the Center for Electoral Promotion and Assistance (CAPEL) of the InterAmerican Human Rights Institute based in Costa Rica. After a thorough audit testing the RE against other databases and itself they concluded: "The technical team of CAPEL has not found anything that implies a deligitimization of the RE as a valid legal instrument for realizing elections". In short, the RE, in spite of having the types of errors that large databases often have, passed the audit (the entire autdit can be found here).

So you would think that would be the end of the matter, right? Especially given that opposition NGO SUMATE audited the RE before the Recall Referendum and also found it to be quite accurate. Unfortunately though, we are dealing with an opposition that is absolutely determined to avoid accepting Chavez's coming re-election as legitimate and is therefore going all out to find excuses not to participate.

For that reason they don't consider the CAPEL audit to have been sufficient - they are now insisting on another audit, this time to be carried out by a group of Venezuelan universities. Three of the universities, the UCV, USB, and UCAB are insisting on carrying out an entirely different type of audit. How would their audit be different from the one carried out by CAPEL? They claim their audit rather than comparing the RE to other databases would be a statistical analysis. For more details lets see what Benjamin Sharifker, the rector of USB said in an interview earlier this week:

Q: From a technical point of view what is the difference between your proposal and the other proposals?

A: Ours will be done on the database contained in the RE. In this way we will formulate a model and from that model will be created a sample of objects to be audited. That is to say, for example, the electoral centers, will be studied in depth to come up with a correlation between the RE and the electors. In that way, the electors would have a guarantee that the data in the RE was in harmony with theirs. It would be possible to detect the errors that a data base of 16 million people will have. Therefore, a very important part of the study will consist in the robustness of the registry with the errors it can contain. That is, in what way could the errors of the RE affect or not affect the results of an election. We are talking about elements that were not analyzed in the audits carried out up to now.

Q: To carry out an audit it is necessary to verify or contrast the RE with another source to determine what coincidences or anomalies there are between various data. What is that other source?

A: The other source is the data contained in the statistical information on the Venezuelan population. For example, the census information that the National Statistical Institute (INE) keeps.

Q: Is the information from the INE reliable?

A: We don't have reasons not to trust an official institution like the INE and the proposal we have made consists of crossing the data from the RE with the information from the INE archives.

Q: What are the anomalies that can arise from comparing that data; more voters than citizens counted by the census, or foreigners registered to vote as Venezuelans?

A: Those that you mentioned and others such as the distribution of the population in urban and rural areas.

Now right off the bat there is a real howler here. The guy wants to compare the electoral registry to the census (are census numbers known for accuracy, especially in places like Venezuela?) carried out be the INE. The reporter then asks is INE data is reliable and the Rector replies - but of course, we have no reason to doubt information from an official source like the INE! Really!!!!!! Then how come the opposition has spent the last year telling us we can't believe that poverty has really declined because the organization that puts together those numbers, the INE, is not to be trusted? Now all of the sudden they are trustworthy again?!?!? These opposition types keep flip flopping so often it's hard to keep up with them!!

And from his comments what is it they want to do? Detect statistical anomalies? So if in Caracas in the 30 to 40 age group 70% of the population is registered to vote and in Valencia 80% of that age group is registered to vote will that be an anomaly? If so, all sorts of "statistical inconsistencies" can be found. Different age groups behave in different ways and the same groups in different locations will behave in different ways for a variety of reasons. If a greater proportion of people are registered to vote in Zulia than in Lara so what? Maybe that results from Zulia having had more hotly contested elections which would encourage people to register to vote.

It is pretty clear this proposed audit is nothing more than a big fishing expedition. They are just wanting to find that in El Tigre 20 to 30 year olds are 20% of the population but 25% of the RE so they can then scream FRAUD. And its not as if they don't have a history of doing this. After the Recall Referendum the opposition came out with an assortment of statistical evidence of fraud which was later shown to be bogus either by astute observers or by an academic panel put together by the Carter Center. Nevertheless there are still some people running around claiming they have statistical proof of fraud in that election. Strangely their proof seems to stay confined to blogs and is never presented to independent experts for review. I wonder why?

No large database is perfect and the CAPEL audit clearly showed the Venezuelan RE isn't either. But it is at least as good as the electoral roles in other countries such as the US. There, according to the Carter-Baker Commission, there are 140,000 people registered to vote in Florida that are also registered to vote in other states (p. 12). Only two states, Oregon and North Carolina, audit their voter rolls (p. 22). And there are more registered voters in the state of Alaska than there are voting age adults! Yet somehow that country seems to be able to hold elections.

At the end of the day the electoral registry is a bogus issue. It has been audited by independent experts and found to be satisfactory. The opposition is a small minority and a rather unpopular one at that. They face a highly popular incumbent president. They know they will be obliterated at the polls because their own polling firms tell them that. So whereas they once had as their slogan "elections now" they now twist and turn and try everything to avoid them. No matter. The elections will go ahead with or without them. And if they decide to boycott the polls it will be seen the world over for what it is - a desperate attempt to prevent their unpopularity from being revealed yet again at the polls.


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