ESTABLISHMENT AND DISMANTLING OF THE VOTING GUARANTEES SYSTEM IN VENEZUELA
By Griselda Colina and Hector Vanolli
Griselda Colina. Comunicadora Social egresada de la UCV. Actualmente es Directora del Observatorio Global de Comunicación y Democracia. Entre 2010 y 2015 ocupó la Coord. de Proyectos de la oficina del Centro Carter en Venezuela. Co- autora del manual de monitoreo de medios del Centro Carter, así como del Informe de Libertad de Expresión de Freedom House 2012. Colina fue parte del staff local de la Misión de Estudio del Centro Carter en Venezuela para los procesos electorales presidenciales de 2012 y 2013. @griscolina
Héctor Vanolli. Es licenciado en Comunicaciones Sociales por la Universidad Católica de Salta (UCS), tiene una maestría en Relaciones Internacionales y Comunicación en la Universidad de Boston (BU) y ha sido scholar de la Fundación Fulbright y la Fundación Ford en los Estados Unidos. Se desempeñó como Representante Permanente del Centro Carter en Venezuela entre 2005 y 2014. Anteriormente, se desempeñó como Especialista en la Unidad para la Promoción de la Democracia (UPD) de la Organización de Estados Americanos (OEA) en Washington DC.
The automation of the Venezuelan voting system in 2004 came with a series of extraordinary security measures aimed chiefly at encouraging the population to trust the electronic voting system.
Said measures came about within a framework of acute political polarization and confrontation, as well as growing partiality by the electoral agency. For this reason, these measures have played an essential role in maintaining social peace. By giving the different actors in this process reliable mechanisms to certify voting results, the system of voting guarantees created since 2004 has guaranteed the trustworthiness of the counting and tallying system. Further, in some cases, such as in 2007 and 2015, it has even led to some voting victories by the opposition.
Paradoxically, during this same period of time, the Venezuelan electoral agency announced a dramatic change of course that would transform it in a matter of a few years into the main promoter of lack of trust in Venezuela and, starting in 2015, into the entity facilitating and consummating electoral fraud.
This article analyses the role of the National Electoral Council (CNE, by its initials in Spanish) in the process of establishing and subsequent dismantling of the system of electoral guarantees in Venezuela, as well as consequences this process has had on the rupturing of the constitutional order and the ensuing chaos and illegality that plagues the nation.
The use of an automated voting system in Venezuela goes back to 1972 when the then-Supreme Electoral Council incorporated electro-mechanic machines to the voting process to print official tallies of votes (see Informe Capel). The decision to transform the positions of governor, mayor and councilman into popular vote positions in 1989 (instead of being appointed by the central government) paved the way so that starting in 1992 Venezuela would take solid steps towards adopting one of the most sophisticated automated voting systems in the continent.
This trend would reach its pinnacle in 2004 when the recently created CNE contracted with the company Smarmatic to automate all of the phases in the voting process. This process finished eight years later when the voter finger print identification system was incorporated, also known as the Integrated Authentication System (SAI, by its initials in Spanish).
Due to the intense political polarization and a generalized feeling of distrust toward the electoral government agency, it was extremely challenging for the CNE to achieve comprehensive automation of the voting system. The CNE, following a suggestion by Smartmatic, and aiming at strengthening people’s trust, approved as the main transparency guarantee a feature in voting machines that prints a receipt known as “proof of vote” after voters have cast their electronic ballots. This allows double verification. First, it allows voters to confirm that the automated voting system has accurately registered their voting selections. Second, once the receipt is deposited in a ballot box (or “backup box”) set up for that purpose, it allows polling supervisors and witnesses from different political organizations to verify that the results from the cast ballots match the results from tallying the voters’ proofs of vote. As an additional guarantee in the process, proofs of votes are printed on special paper that has watermarks and security ink and are identified by a non-sequential code.
This process became known as “on-the-fly audit” (the technical name is Citizens’ Audit, Phase I) given that this is a second verification done after voting has been closed and in front of representatives from political parties, observers and citizens in general.
After the presidential recall referendum, this set of guarantees was complemented by a group of additional protocols. The CNE, under pressure from opposition political groups and under scrutiny from the international community, agreed then to require that cast ballots are printed and given to the witnesses and prosecutors present during the voting process before they are sent by the machines to the tallying center located in the CNE headquarters. It also required polling supervisors and representatives from the different political parties to sign the ballot boxes that harbor the cast ballots. Likewise, the CNE agreed to keep the voting machines unplugged during the voting process so as to assuage the fear of those signing the ballot boxes that data would be surreptitiously transmitted during the voting process. More importantly, in 2006, the CNE announced it would increase the percentage of ballot boxes to be audited during the “on-the-fly audit” from a small percentage initially to over 50 per cent.
Additionally, the CNE had already accomplished a comprehensive audit of the entire system as the main security guarantee. The six original technical audits were progressively supplemented by more audits until the number reached 19 audits in 2013. The last audit added to the process was the so-called Post Audit of Voters’ Data, also known as the Audit to Prevent Duplicity of Fingerprints, which was specifically designed to detect cases of multiple votes or voter identity substitution (see Blog E-LECTOR).
Paradoxically, the stage for creation and strengthening of the system of voting guarantees that characterized the Venezuelan automated voting system during the 2000s coincided with a period of gradual but inexorable transformation of the CNE. This transformation turned the agency into an arm of the executive branch whose main function came down to maintaining the current government in power at all costs.
The National Electoral Council was created in 1999 by the new Bolivarian constitution as an autonomous agency, and it was charged with guaranteeing the “organization, administration, management and overseeing” of voting processes based on the principle of “independence, impartiality, autonomy and non-partisanship,” as well as “transparency and speed,” in all tasks relating to popular elections and referenda.
Sadly, except for CNE’s actions in the first few years of its existence, the electoral agency did not honor at any time the principles of autonomy and independence that were so solemnly set forth in its birth certificate. On the contrary, starting in 2003, while under the leadership of Francisco Carrasquero, the Venezuelan electoral agency began a dramatic and unprecedented change that quickly transformed it into an active actor of the political battle in favor of pro-government political forces.
This situation gave rise to a series of severe institutional distortions that in time would deeply transform the country. It also led to other serious consequences, including depriving the Venezuelan society from the critical role played by an electoral agency as an arbiter during conflict resolution situations. The CNE became an actor with an interest in a particular result, which contributed to what in Venezuela is known as “institutionalized opportunism.” Said institutionalized opportunism is a situation where all the state agencies agree to support the pro-government candidate in every election in an arranged, open and systematic manner.
Despite this panorama, the system of electoral guarantees did not only make possible for opposition forces to win some important elections, it also gave the different political actors reliable mechanisms to verify election results. The opposition could only lose an election based on the overwhelming inequality that plagued electoral competition, but never based on manipulating or altering voting figures. This status quo took a dramatic turn after 2015.
The very fine red line
On 6 December 2015, opposition forces inflicted perhaps the most important election defeat on the Chavismo since Hugo Chavez rose as president in 1999. The opposition won 110 National Assembly representative slots in the 2015 parliamentary elections, thereby obtaining a qualified or absolute majority that allowed it to select or dismiss, on prior approval by the Supreme Court of Justice, members of the CNE, and approve enabling laws and motions to censor ministers and the vice president, among others. The Government, knowing that this situation would mean the end of the “revolution,” moved quickly. Pro-government members of the outgoing National Assembly carried out a last-minute stratagem that allowed the Government to not recognize four members elected to represent the indigenous sector, three of which were members of the opposition. By doing this, the Government did not only prevent the existence of a qualified majority in the National Assembly, it also left this entity in Amazonas state without representation (see Amazonas).
What happened in that election signaled the CNE’s behavior in future elections. From that moment on, the CNE abandoned any pretense of being neutral and actively impeded or made difficult any chance for the opposition to make any political progress. This process led, among others, to the partial annulment of the National Assembly elected in 2015 through a spurious election in 2017 of the National Constituent Assembly. The latter was a supra-constitutional entity that took on parallel parliamentary functions.
Between 2016 and 2017, the CNE engaged in a long list of very serious violations. The agency, among others, 1) prevented the opposition from requesting, pursuant to constitutional provisions, the activation of a mechanism known as the presidential recall referendum, 2) delayed without any justification the process to legitimize national political organizations, which, pursuant to regulation, should have taken place after the 2015 parliamentary elections, 3) delayed for almost a year the elections for governors and members of the regional legislative councils, 4) eliminated from the latter process, with no explanation, the renewal of positions for members of said regional legislative councils, and 5) with regard to municipal elections, announced elections for only 335 mayors, thereby ignoring without any justification whatsoever the elections for representatives to Municipal Councils and the elections for the metropolitan mayors of Alto Apure and Caracas.
The CNE’s extraordinary transformation would end in 2017 when the agency crossed the very fine red line that separates opportunism from manipulation of the numbers. This happened for the first time during the unlawful elections that created the National Constituent Assembly. The electoral entity did not only openly and carelessly violate rules and principles regarding the organization and management of elections, it also manipulated the numbers, as the company providing the automated service Smartmatic denounced. Said company stopped providing services in Venezuela after that statement (see Smartmatic).
The CNE once again crossed the fine red line during the 2017 regional elections when it fraudulently prevented opposition candidate Andres Velasquez from taking power in Bolivar state’s government. Furthermore, following directions from the executive branch, the CNE did not recognize the results of the popular vote for Zulia state during the same elections, in which opposition candidate Juan Pablo Guanipa was elected (see Guanipa).
The Venezuelan case demonstrates, as any other example in the Western hemisphere, that in order to maintain legality, coexistence and social peace, neutral voting institutions must exist. The history of the country in the past 15 years would perhaps have been different if Venezuela had had an impartial voting agency that resisted the authoritarian attacks by the government in the early stages of the regime’s consolidation.
The transition into democracy in Venezuela poses a two-fold challenge. First, democratizing the nation requires the creation of an independent CNE that serves citizens and the constitution. On the other hand, it is important that both political parties and citizens in general demand that the voting guarantees achieved in the past are preserved while the first challenge is overcome.
The Venezuelan automated voting system has a series of important strengths that the different actors in the democratic system must demand and take advantage of while putting aside the inequality of the current eco-electoral system.