|Two Venezuelan Women Proudly Show Their Inked Fingers after Voting|
August 18, 2013
Democracy in Our Upside Down World Is Not Always What It Is Reported to Be
by Robin Alexander, UE International Affairs Director
The last month has made me reflect again on the meaning of democracy, from the coup in Egypt to the erosion of democratic institutions here in the United States.
North Carolina is the most recent state to permit the Republican Party to fight its increasing unpopularity by depriving those most likely to vote against it of the right to vote at all. As summarized by the Nation, “…the North Carolina legislature passed the country’s worst voter suppression law after only three days of debate. The bill mandates strict voter ID to cast a ballot (no student IDs, no public employee IDs, etc.), even though 318,000 registered voters lack the narrow forms of acceptable ID according to the state’s own numbers and there have been no recorded prosecutions of voter impersonation in the past decade. The bill cuts the number of early voting days by a week, even though 56 percent of North Carolinians voted early in 2012. The bill eliminates same-day voter registration during the early voting period, even though 96,000 people used it during the general election in 2012 and states that have adopted the convenient reform have the highest voter turnout in the country. African-Americans are 23 percent of registered voters in the state, but made up 28 percent of early voters in 2012, 33 percent of those who used same-day registration and 34 percent of those without state-issued ID.”
Meanwhile, Edward Snowden’s disclosures generated a much needed debate over the role of the US government in spying on both its own citizens and close allies. But instead of being treated as a hero for encouraging public scrutiny of practices that would not otherwise have seen the light of day, the administration has attempted to paint him as a traitor, taking actions that made the US look ridiculous and harming our relations with a variety of countries. Snowden’s travails in the Moscow airport left the US whining about Russia and then refusing to attend a summit, strong-arming European countries to deny the President of Bolivia previously granted access to airspace and once again threatening Venezuela, souring what had appeared to be an improvement in relations with that country following a peace offering by Venezuela’s new President via the appointment of Calixto Ortega as charge d'affaires, a man known to be viewed favorably by the U.S.
Democracy in Venezuela
|The President of an Election Station in Caracas Shows the Electronic Tape Tabulating the Vote|
As Venezuela is once again castigated as undemocratic, it would serve us well to take a serious look at its electoral system. I had the privilege of doing just that when I joined a team of international observers on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild during the elections last October and February and then again in late May for an expanded audit.
While here the U.S. we have been experiencing increased attempts to diminish voting by the elderly, the young, the poor, and people of color, Venezuela’s independent branch of government that is charged with the responsibility of conducting elections, the National Electoral Council (CNE) has been implementing a massive voter registration effort targeting what they term the gap between those eligible to vote and those registered on the electoral rolls. The result is that they have gone from a rate of 20% unregistered voters in 1998 to only 3.5% today. The last two presidential elections have also had impressive turn-out rates, with 79,68% in April, down slightly from the previous October.
The Electoral Process
|Local Election Officials in Venezuela Prepare for Presidential Election|
Given the attack on Venezuela in the mainstream media, it is useful to examine the electoral process in some detail. Prior to the election, machines are sent out from the assembly and service plant in Caracas. They are set up and tested to make sure everything functions properly. The morning of the election, each machine is once again put through its paces and, with the poll workers, party witnesses and soldiers present, it is unlocked with a code and generates a tape that indicates that no votes have yet been registered. For the rest of the day, voters follow a horseshoe shaped process: showing their credentials, then placing their finger in the fingerprint reader to generate their ID number and photo. This unlocks the voting machine, permitting the voter to continue on to the voting machine and press the picture of the candidate and party of his or her choice and then the vote key. The machine then issues a paper receipt with the name of the candidate, permitting the voter to double check that his or her vote was properly recorded. The voter places the folded receipt in a ballot box. The final steps are to dip one's pinky finger in indelible ink and to sign and place a fingerprint in the registry as a final backup check.
When the polls close, 54% of the paper ballots cast are checked manually against the final tally issued by the voting machines through a Acitizens audit@ of polling stations that have been randomly selected, in the presence of the party witnesses. The CNE waits to make its announcement of the results until the outcome was certain. This is the system that has been recognized by Jimmy Carter as "the best in the world."
Yet, in the last election, the CNE went one step further. When the opposition candidate cried fraud and demanded a recount, the CNE authorized an expanded audit, counting virtually all of the receipts confirming the votes tallied by the machines. After weeks of intensive effort supervised by a team of computer experts, the CNE concluded: “Of the voting slips audited, 4,596,432 showed no discrepancies whatsoever in relation to the polling booth record of total votes cast, which represents 99.98% of the total.”
Adopting Some of Venezuela's Electoral Practices Would Be Good for US Democracy
As reflected in the report of the National Lawyers Guild, while some of the safeguards in place in the Venezuelan system would be difficult to implement in the United States, we would do well to incorporate a number of features of Venezuela's electoral system:
• Hold elections on Sundays to make it easier for working people to vote;
• Engage in a major outreach effort to increase voter registration rather than implementing practices that suppress participation;
• Utilize sophisticated technology to eliminate any possibility of fraud or manipulation of electronic data, including voting machines that issue paper receipts that can be viewed by the voter to confirm that his or her vote has been properly registered;
• Adopt a Citizens’ Audit process to ensure that the results of the final print-out from the voting machines match the votes cast as reflected by the paper receipts in the sealed ballot box, to increase confidence in the electoral system, and involve the public in the electoral system, leading to increased political participation.