Democrats Investigate Venezuelan Ties, But Are Inconsistent on Voter Technology

Smartmatic, which makes voting machines, is owned by three Venezuelans; they are being investigated by the Feds in an effort to ascertain whether Caracas has any control or influence over Smartmatic. By calling for an investigation, Maloney gets to look tough on the issue of voter technology.

I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. 

A few days ago, I read an article in the New York Times about how Representative Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, had successfully lobbied the U.S. government into investigating Smartmatic.  The company owns Sequoia Voting Systems, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of electronic voting machines.  Sequoia’s voting equipment will be used in the November 7, 2006 Congressional elections in 16 U.S. states as well as the District of Columbia.  

The U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) a multi-agency panel that approves or rejects foreign takeovers, will handle the investigation.  

Could it be, I wondered, that after six long years of Republican rule and electoral shenanigans, the Democrats had finally found their nerve and were going to fight to preserve our electoral democracy?

Then I read the fine print: what really upset Maloney was that Smartmatic might have ties to leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and his government. 

Demonizing Chavez has become de riguer ever since the Venezuelan leader called Bush “the devil” while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York.  Chavez was prompted to go on his rhetorical offensive after enduring years of strong-arm U.S. interventionist tactics in his nation’s internal politics (for a more detailed explanation of these issues see my recent book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S., published by St. Martin’s Press).

According to the Miami Herald, Maloney expressed concerns regarding Smartmatic’s purchase of Sequoia last year and a possible connection between the Venezuelan government and Smartmatic through the software company, Bizta- which is operated by two of the same people who own Smartmatic. 

At one time, the Venezuelan government owned 28% of Bitza.  But, Sequoia claims this part “ownership” in Bizta merely added up to collateral for a $150,000 loan that Bizta had received in 2003 from the Venezuelan Industrial Credit Fund, which is the equivalent of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Smartmatic is owned by three Venezuelans; they are being investigated by the Feds in an effort to ascertain whether Caracas has any control or influence over Smartmatic.  Company officials strenuously deny any link, as does the Venezuelan government.

By calling for an investigation, Maloney gets to look tough on the issue of voter technology.  “The government should know who owns our voting machines — that is a national security concern,” she remarked.  “Having a foreign government investing or owning a company in this country that makes voting machines could raise a question about the integrity of the elections,” she added.

Maloney, who voted for the Iraq war in 2002 but who now seeks to redeploy the troops “at the earliest practicable date,” specializes in fishing for safe issues that make her look strong on national security.  She recently sought to outflank the Bush administration by calling for reform of the CFIUS process that allowed Dubai Ports World to acquire a British company that controlled operations in several key U.S. ports.

Now Maloney seeks to enhance her standing on national security matters by suggesting that the Bush administration is failing to protect us from the likes of the Venezuelan government. 

“Just as the Dubai ports deal was a priority security issue,” she remarked, “any potential foreign influence on our elections system is vital to our national security and deserves at least a look.  It doesn’t seem that the deal for Sequoia was vetted by our government, and I want to know why.”

By raising the red flag on Venezuela Maloney gets into the good graces of the mainstream media, which has been condemning Chavez ever since his inflammatory appearance at the United Nations. 

CNN’s Lou Dobbs, a nationalist xenophobe, has long been a leading Chavez critic.  Not surprisingly he lavished praise on Maloney, remarking on his show that “we have to give just extraordinary credit to Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. She focused on this issue, she brought it to the attention of the public, and our hats are off to her.”

As the ranking member on the Domestic and International Monetary Policy, Trade and Technology Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over CFIUS, Maloney has the right to call for investigations as she sees fit.  The problem, however, is that the Democrats have not been consistent on the issue of voter technology. 

Sequoia is actually the smallest of the three top vendors of e-voting machinery; the others are Diebold, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), and Hart InterCivic.

According to Robert Kennedy Jr., writing in Rolling Stone magazine, ES&S was at one point chaired by Chuck Hagel, a Republican Senator from Nebraska. 

Tom Hicks, an investor in Hart InterCivic and a GOP stalwart, bought the Texas Rangers from George Bush in 1998.  The purchase made George Bush a millionaire.  

Diebold has contributed at least $300,000 to GOP candidates since 1998.  Up until recently, Walden O’Dell was Diebold’s CEO; prior to the presidential election of 2004 he pledged to deliver Ohio to George Bush.

In Ohio in 2004, observers reported widespread problems and irregularities with ES&S machines.  Following the election in Ohio, Democratic Congressman John Conyers of Michigan wrote a report about flawed computer voter technology and raised the issue on the floor of Congress, but received little support from Democrats in the Senate. 

The Nation’s John Nichols remarked, “the dramatic imperfections in the 2004 presidential election in Ohio, as detailed in a new report…circulated by Representative John Conyers Jr…. deserve a more serious response than they received from the majority of Congressional Democrats.” 

When Congress reviewed the Electoral College result, Conyers objected to the certification of the Ohio result.  But in the end, only 31 Democratic House members and one Senator voted against electoral certification.

Going into the November 7th election, voters are uneasy about the security of touch-screen voting machines and other electronic elections systems.  According to officials, nearly 40 percent of voters on Election Day next week will be using paperless touch-screen machines which leave no paper trail and are vulnerable to hackers. According to Newsweek magazine, Diebold machines display grave vulnerabilities.  Experts say that the software on Diebold machines can be altered very easily.  Diebold, unlike Smartmatic, is not owned by Venezuelans but Americans.  

The Democrats must systematically address the issue of electronic voting machines and companies across the board.  Failure to do so will give the distinct impression that the party is trying to score easy political points by bashing Chavez and lacks the necessary commitment to preserve our electoral democracy.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author, most recently, of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press)