The Carter Center released its pre-election report on the Venezuelan electoral process yesterday. The response from the U.S. media has, with the exception of a few wire service articles, been silence. Instead, papers such as the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Times have, in recent days, raised the specter of possible fraud, government recrimination against opposition voters, and possible violence that could result from people not accepting the election’s outcome. The Washington Times, for example, began an article Thursday by reporting:
With Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez facing the most serious re-election challenge of his 14-year reign, international observers are bracing for the possibility of social unrest if the outcome is close when voters go to the polls Sunday.
“I think the probability of upheaval and protests increases the closer the vote gets,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas in New York.
A close vote count between Mr. Chavez and his fresh-faced challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski may trigger a street-level clash between viscerally opposed supporters of the two.
“There are rumors that Chavista armed organizations are ready to come down from the hills should Capriles win,” said Mr. Sabatini. “The other side is that if Capriles loses in a squeaker, his supporters have some pretty good basis to claim fraud.”
The New York Times, as we noted yesterday, interviewed an opposition voter who claimed to be afraid to vote for Capriles since it might put her future career in jeopardy – despite being perfectly willing to be cited by name in the Times article, and despite making her political inclinations very clear on social media.
The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, reported yesterday:
For Capriles to win, many voters who lean in his direction will have to overcome fear that they will lose their jobs or benefits in the event of a government change, that there will be an increase in political violence if Chavez loses, or that the government somehow will find out they voted for Capriles and take retribution.
So what does the Carter Center say about the possibility of fraud, and ballot secrecy?
Under the heading “Security of the voting machines,” their report [PDF] states:
Political party and domestic observer technical experts have participated in the 16 pre-election audits of the entire automated system, including hardware and software as well as the fingerprint databases, in the most open process to date, according to opposition technical experts. The MUD experts who have participated in the audits have said they are confident in the security mechanisms and the secrecy of the vote.
The report goes on to describe how an encryption key is needed in order to tamper with the machines’ software, which is “created by contributions from the opposition, government, and CNE.”
The software on the machines cannot then be tampered with unless all three parties join together to “open” the machines and change the software. In addition, each voting machine has its own individual digital signature that detects if there is any modification to that machine. If the vote count is somehow tampered with despite these security mechanisms, it should be detectable, according to all the experts who have participated in the process, because of the various manual verification mechanisms.
The report also notes:
Venezuela started creating a database of fingerprints of voters eight years ago to be able to prevent multiple voting by one person, or impersonation of voters. The database is nearly complete. Only seven percent of registered voters are not entered or have poor quality prints. These voters can enter their fingerprints on election day. (The MUD [opposition coalition backing Henrique Capriles, the Democratic Unity Roundtable in English] is satisfied with the data collection process.) [Emphasis added.]
This system is intended to address one of the complaints from both the government and the opposition in the past: in places where party witnesses were not present, the president of the voting table could “stuff the ballot box electronically” by repeatedly activating the voting machine him or herself.
The report also describes MUD satisfaction with other key aspects of the process:
The coalition that supports the Capriles´s candidacy (Mesa de Unidad Democratica-MUD) reported that they have monitored and tested the voters list continuously and find it acceptable. A study they conducted of the evolution of the list since 2010 concluded that the growth was in line with demographic changes in the country: population growth of citizens at least 18 years of age was 4.3 percent, while the voters list grew 7.6 percent. The coverage of the list consequently rose about 3 percent to 96.7 percent of the population.
the MUD investigated the “migration” of voters, or change in voting location, and found that 97 percent of voters relocated by the electoral body were aware of their new voting place and satisfied with the change.
Pollworkers (miembros de mesa) are chosen by lottery from the voters list and trained by the CNE. The opposition MUD reported that it received the list in July and that it has determined that there is no partisan bias in the selection.
Contrary to U.S. press reports, the Carter Center is describing ways in which the electoral system is becoming more secure against fraud.
Regarding ballot secrecy, the report states:
The introduction of the SAI system for the 2012 elections has raised a concern among some voters that their identity can be linked to their vote, thus violating the secrecy of the vote, with the potential for recrimination. This concern has no basis, however. The software of the voting machines guarantees the secrecy of the vote. The software instructs the machines to scramble the order of the votes, scramble the order of the voter identifications, and to keep these scrambled files in two separate archives. It cannot be modified without violating the digital signature of the machines, which detect modifications, and without knowing the three-party encryption key described above. MUD technicians have therefore categorically concluded there is no evidence whatsoever that it is possible to connect or reconstruct the link between fingerprint/ID number and the vote. [Emphasis added.]
At the end of the day, 53 percent of voting tables will be audited, in a thorough process:
A comparison of a count of the paper receipts and the electronic tally at the end of the voting day with the presence of voters, political party witnesses, domestic observers, and the general public is conducted in a large sample of approximately 53 percent of the voting tables, selected at random. Additionally, party witnesses receive a printout of the electronic tally from every machine. The CNE gives the party a CD with the results of each machine and publishes them on the website so that all of these results can be compared.
It is also notable that, regarding the supposed media advantage of Chavez over Capriles, the Carter Center reports echoes CEPR’s findings on the actual audience share of state versus private media:
the market share of the state-owned media, particularly television, is quite small. According to media consultants, Venezuelan state TV channels had just a 5.4 percent audience share; 61.4 percent were watching privately owned television channels; and 33.1 percent were watching paid TV). [Últimas Noticias recently reported a distinct media advantage for Capriles over Chavez, in campaign coverage on the private media.]
In sum, the MUD opposition coalition is satisfied with the integrity of Venezuela’s electoral system; it is Christopher Sabatini, the LA Times, New York Times, and other U.S. voices that are not, along with some of the more extreme members of Venezuela’s opposition – and perhaps Venezuelans who have been led to believe the ballot isn’t secret by a vociferous opposition media. It should perhaps not be surprising to hear Sabatini raise unfounded fears of fraud and violence – after all, he is the former NED Director for Latin America and the Caribbean (including during the NED-supported 2002 coup d’etat against Chavez). But prominent U.S. newspapers are at least supposed to have some objectivity in their reporting.