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Opinion and Analysis: Politics

What really happened in Venezuela?

OPPONENTS of President Hugo Chávez have claimed that fraud thwarted their recent attempt to remove him from office in a recall referendum. Venezuela's election agency declared that Mr Chávez won the referendum by 59% to 41%. How can we assess these competing claims?

The opposition's suspicions are based on three things. First, an exit poll supervised by Penn, Schoen, and Berland Associates (PSB), an American polling firm, and conducted by volunteers from Súmate, an opposition civic group, showed the opposition winning by 18 points. Second, there was a pattern of polling stations where several electronic voting machines returned an identical result, in what looked like a pre-programmed “cap” on the number of opposition votes. Third, in some places the “Yes” votes to recall the president were fewer than the number of signatures on a recall petition last year.

I was there directing the Carter Center's election-monitoring efforts. I was concerned when I heard from both sides during the vote that their exit polls each showed them winning by 18 points. In my experience, competing exit polls are normal. But I was concerned about the size of the discrepancy (36 points), knowing that both sides in this deeply polarised country expected to win. Many in Venezuela and in the United States have called into question the referendum's result, as well as the ability of international monitors from the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center to detect fraud. Others have raised the spectre of electronic fraud in the American presidential election, citing the Venezuelan experience with new touch-screen voting machines.

Prior to the vote, Venezuela's National Election Council (CNE) threatened to limit the number of observers, and access to voting sites and some technical aspects of the vote. This generated suspicion among Venezuelans. The Carter Center urged the CNE to lift these restrictions, which it largely did. In the end, we received authorisation for all of the observers we requested, access to many of the technical components we asked for, and freedom of movement on election day. Both the OAS and the Carter Center had been mediating in Venezuela for two years and had already observed the signature collection and verification process. We observed all of the prior simulations conducted on the new electronic voting machines.

We planned three tests of the new electronic voting system. First, with the OAS, we conducted a “quick count” in which our observers at a random sample of polling stations (mesas) called results in to mission headquarters. This was to check the official results that were transmitted from the machines to CNE headquarters. Second, we drew a larger sample of poll results from those received electronically at CNE headquarters, to test the accuracy of tabulation by the CNE's computers. These tests confirmed there was no manipulation of the software or data transmission.

Missing from those tests was what happened within the black box of the voting machines. Fortunately, the Venezuelan machines were programmed to produce a paper trail: after each vote, a paper ballot was printed, inspected by the voter, and deposited in a cardboard ballot box. We had urged a “hot audit”, an immediate count of the paper ballots. At the last minute, the CNE approved an audit of 1% of the voting machines. But this was only half completed, because of the high turnout, late closing of the polls (some as late as 3am) and poor instructions to CNE auditors. We were only able to observe a few of these “hot audits”, as we needed to be at other mesas for our own quick count.

We therefore proposed to the CNE a second audit, three days after the vote, to check the paper slips. We agreed a methodology with the opposition's technical advisors, but its political leaders decided not to participate (they had wanted to negotiate directly with the CNE). We tested and verified the CNE's computer programme to draw a new random sample of 150 mesas, comprising 334 voting machines, and observed the drawing of the sample. We put observers in the main military garrisons where the boxes of paper receipts were stored, before the sample was drawn, to avoid any tampering with the chosen boxes. The observers accompanied the boxes to Caracas, and then watched over a meticulous count in which each slip was compared with the electronic result.

The only way the boxes could have been altered would be for the military—historically the custodians of election material in Venezuela—to have reprogrammed 19,200 voting machines to print out new paper receipts with the proper date, time and serial code and in the proper number of Yes and No votes to match the electronic result, and to have reinserted these into the proper ballot boxes. All of this in garrisons spread across 22 states, between Monday and Wednesday, with nobody revealing the fraud. We considered this to be supremely implausible.

This second audit showed that the machines were very accurate. We found a variation of only 0.1% between the paper receipts and the electronic results. This could be explained by voters putting the slips in the wrong ballot box. An additional piece of corroborating evidence was the result from the 15% of polling stations that used the old-fashioned manual ballot. These stations (in mostly rural areas without telephones) were even more favourable to the president, voting 70:30 against recall.

If the machines were accurate, how do we explain the three suspicious factors noted by the opposition? First, the mysterious “tied” results or “caps” on the machines. We found that 402 of 8,100 mesas (each with one to three machines) had two or three machines with the same result for the Yes vote; and 311 mesas had the same results for the No vote. So the phenomenon affected both sides. We consulted Jonathan Taylor, a statistician from Stanford University. Using various mathematical models, he predicted that 379 mesas would have ties (of two or three machines) in the Yes votes, and 336 mesas would have ties in the No votes. The error range would be plus or minus 36 mesas. So the actual results fell within the range of probability, and do not provide evidence of fraud.

The second oddity was the opposition's exit poll. In countries as polarised as Venezuela, exit polls are risky. They require those conducting them to avoid bias in choosing whom to query, to avoid socio-economic bias in their dress and speech, and to work in a wide variety of neighbourhoods. They also require voters to tell the truth—despite intimidation and strong peer pressure on both sides. Any of these elements could have been lacking.

Puzzles and explanations

The third puzzle was places with fewer Yes voters than signers of the recall petition. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some people who were expected to vote Yes in fact voted No. Overall, more people (almost 4m) voted to recall the president than signed the petition last November (3.4m). But some of the signers might have supported a recall as a democratic right, while themselves not wanting to remove the president. Some may have changed their minds since November. And some may have decided that Chavismo in government was more likely to preserve the peace than Chavismo in opposition.

Two other factors help to explain the result. First, reputable polls showed Mr Chávez climbing in the months before the vote; three weeks before, he had a nine-point lead among likely voters. Opposition leaders and pollsters told me before-hand that a high turn-out was expected to favour Mr Chávez. The turn-out was a high 70%, compared with an average in previous elections of 55%.

The second factor (which helps to explain the first) was that delays in the collection and verification of signatures gave time for the economy to recover from the previous year's devastating strike. Mr Chávez campaigned tirelessly and spent large sums from record oil revenues on social programmes for the poor. The government also naturalised long-waiting immigrants and registered up to 2m new voters. In contrast, the opposition ran a lacklustre campaign, did not present a clear alternative leader, and could not compete with the government's resources.

In conclusion, the vote itself was secret and free, but the CNE's lack of openness, last-minute changes and internal divisions harmed public confidence in that vital institution both before and after the vote. Divisive rhetoric and intimidating tactics from Chavistas, and the opposition's still-unsubstantiated claims of fraud, have exacerbated Venezuelans' cynicism toward elections. It will take a huge effort by both sides to restore trust in this fundamental democratic right before next month's election for governors and mayors.

Jennifer McCoy directed the Carter Center's observer mission in Venezuela and is a Latin America expert at Georgia State University in Atlanta.