Thursday, June 17, 2004

Venezuelan Recall Is in Dispute Even Before the Vote

By Juan Forero and John Schwartz, New York Times, June 11, 2004

Venezuela has a recall election coming up in August, and questions are being raised about the new, electronic voting system the government is planning to use. While the system reportedly does produce a voter verified paper record, critics are urging those records be used to verify the accuracy of the software vote count. The New York Times gives a review and update on the situation from Caracas, Venezuela.


Touch-screen voting machines, which have been plagued by security and reliability concerns in the United States, will be used in the recall vote on President Hugo Chávez, prompting his foes and foreign diplomats to contend that the left-leaning government may use the equipment to manipulate the vote.

A new touch-screen system here, bought earlier this year by Mr. Chávez's government, uses voting machines made by the Smartmatic Corporation of Boca Raton, Fla., and software produced by a related company, the Bizta Corporation, also of Florida. Neither company has experience in an actual election.


One solution, electoral and computer experts say, is the use of manual audits of the receipts the machines produce for every vote cast.

"That is the most normal thing in an electoral process, and that they would deny it is absurd," said a diplomat in Caracas who has closely monitored elections here and in other Latin countries. "What serious electoral board would not permit an observation, as is done everywhere?"


Mr. Chávez's opponents have suggested that an independent observer like the Organization of American States or the Atlanta-based Carter Center, audit the signatures.

But the electoral council has opposed an audit, saying that as an autonomous body it would tally the votes and ensure there is no fraud. Some pro-Chávez members of the council, in fact, have suggested that the O.A.S. does not need to monitor the election, or that its role should be restricted.

Opposition leaders contend that three of the electoral council's five members are partisan to the president, an opinion echoed by diplomats in Caracas.

Leaders of the Democratic Coordinator, an umbrella group of opposition groups, had initially pushed for a manual count. But now the opposition says it simply wants to carry out an audit of a sampling of the votes, perhaps on as few as 400 of the 12,000 machines that are to be used.

"We are not asking that they do an electoral count on all the receipts," said Jesús Torrealba, an opposition leader. "What we're asking for is a statistical sampling."


The government has raised a host of questions since announcing earlier this year that it was replacing voting machines made by a Spanish firm, Indra, with Smartmatic's equipment. The Miami Herald reported in May that the Venezuelan government had invested in Bizta, a new company that makes the software to be used in the machines.


Glitches and tampering with voting machines has been seen before in Latin America, where there is a long history of stolen elections.

The government of then-President Alberto K. Fujimori stole the 2000 Peruvian presidential election. Days before, the O.A.S. examined the software used in the machines and found technical problems that would permit manipulation.

The Fujimori government, though, refused to make corrections, and the O.A.S. abandoned the country before the election. The government was later accused of fraud in the election. Mr. Fujimori resigned soon after.

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