“Popular Will Can Be Derailed If You Allow A Minority To Derail This Will”

Jorge Rodriguez, one of the principal members of the National Elections Council, answers questions about exactly why the council is requiring re-certification of over 800,000 signatures, the OAS and Carter Center's roles, and how court rulings affect the council's work.

Jorge Rodriguez is one of five principal members of the National Electoral Council (CNE). He was nominated for the post by Chavez supporters and has become one of the main spokespersons for the CNE. Rodriguez and two other CNE members questioned 876,000 presidential recall referendum petition signatures that appeared to be written with the same handwriting (when each form should have been filled out by up to ten different signers) and voted to require these and about 300,000 other invalidated  signatures to be re-certified in a so-called “repair process,” where signers can either confirm or deny that they intended to sign. When the majority of council members did this, the opposition cried foul and declared that the CNE was merely doing President Chavez’s bidding. Many in the opposition believed that re-certifying at least 600,000 signatures, so that the requisite 2.4 million valid signatures could be reached, would be practically impossible. When the opposition threatened to boycott the repair process, the CNE, with the mediation of Carter Center and OAS representatives, entered into “conversations” with the opposition, so as to see how the process could be organized so that the opposition would participate.

Last week Jorge Rodriguez announced a new electoral calendar that the National Electoral Directorate (JNE), which is responsible for elections logistics, had set. According to that calendar, the repair process for the petitions for recall referenda against legislators would take place between May 14 and May 16, while the repair process for the presidential referendum would take place between May 21 and 23. Both CNE and opposition officials said that they were close to an agreement. However, last Friday, when the CNE was supposed to announce the procedures and the final count for how many signatures were eligible for repair, the opposition rejected the procedures draft, saying that it was not what had been discussed with the CNE. The CNE retracted the draft, and announced that the final version would be announced this coming Tuesday.

Another major issue involves the rulings of two of the chambers of Venezuela’s Supreme Court. The Supreme Court consists of five chambers, each with different areas of responsibility. Opposition representatives filed court injunctions with the Electoral Chamber, in order to prevent the CNE’s application of its doubts about the validity of the forms written in similar handwriting (planillas planas). However, the Constitutional Chamber ruled that since there is no law governing the recall referenda, the referenda are an issue of constitutional interpretation and therefore belong to it. It is generally assumed that the Electoral Chamber is sympathetic to the opposition while the Constitutional Chamber has a pro-Chavez majority. Exactly how the issue is to be resolved in the courts is unclear. Some say that the issue needs a ruling by the full 20 member Supreme Court, while others say that the Constitutional Court has a final say on this issue.

Meanwhile, the country’s largest opposition party, Acción Democratica, announced that it will split for the opposition coalition, Democratic Coordinator.

The interview was conducted on April 15, in Jorge Rodriguez’ office.

GW: How are the negotiations with the opposition proceeding?

JR: The electoral power is not negotiable. It is a public power that makes decisions that are used for facilitating the public’s political expression as is established in the constitution. The electoral power has been having conversations with the authors of the recall effort in a climate of distortions, one of which is the serious political polarization, where there are sectors that are very much in confrontation, which makes it very difficult to find consensus. The other, the presence of other non-traditional political actors, such as many of the private mass media, the radio-electronic media, have acquired a political belligerency and often direct the agenda of political actors and this complicates the ability of the council to act in a climate that is less conflictive.

From this point of view, we have had very difficult and complicated conversations with the actors of the recall, so that the repair mechanism would be a transparent and viable. We have arrived at a mechanism that complies with these criteria, which are the only requisites that are of importance to the National Electoral Council. The recall referenda belong neither to the Commando Ayacucho[1] nor to the Democratic Coordinator. Nor do they belong to the government or the opposition. What article 72 of the constitution establishes is that the referenda belong to the people of Venezuela. Also, article 31 of the recall referendum norms demands a repair period. The National Electoral Council will establish this mechanism for the citizens, listening of course to the actors of the recall, to the opposition and to the government, but basically so that the citizens can express their will and so that the electoral council is clear about this expression.

GW: So the conversations are continuing?

JR: We are at the edge of an agreement. Apparently important sectors of the Coordinator are in agreement with the proposal that the national electoral council has elaborated.

GW: How have the discussions within the electoral council been? Have they been very conflictive?

JR: No, the five members of the council have worked quite harmoniously, but there have been important differences of opinion, with regard to the conception of the internal functioning of the council, with regard to the criteria of the verification of the signatures, and the treatment of signatures with similar handwriting. This is an electoral council that has tried to establish the institutionality of the council. I think this is positive and important.

GW: You mentioned before that you and board member Oscar Battaglini have received death threats. How have such threats influenced your work?

JR: I think we have managed this within the context of this being the price of the office. I think the climate of extreme polarization has contributed to the unleashing of demons that are very hidden within the behavior of Venezuelans, such as intolerance, racism, attitudes of violent confrontation, when one disagrees with others, projections, when it seems that the bad is only in the other and not within oneself. Above all, and most dangerously, is an intention to undermine the institutions, that the Supreme Court, the electoral council, the legislature, lose their authority. There is a very dangerous intention behind this, which is to undermine the institutionality of the state, so that it might be replaced with instances that reply to a single interest.

GW: The opposition always says that it is Chavez who has monopolized all of the institutions of the state. Is there any type of influence that the executive exerts over the electoral power?

JR: I, at least, have not felt this. In any case, it is clear that each of the five council members has managed themselves in accordance with their own criteria. In my case, the decisions have been reached either by me alone or in consultation with the technical teams or with other council members.

I see it as something very dangerous, the intention that some political actors have to replace the national electoral council with private institutions that would fulfill regulating functions, and receive private funds.[2] That would be as if private courts were to be established that would belong to a private company and would make decisions about the imprisonment of Venezuelans. I have opposed this and will continue to do so. Any intention to undermine the electoral council will encounter my most vehement opposition.

GW: Is there anything you can say about the numbers of signatures?

JR: Yes, there are the figures that we approved on March 2nd, which say that there are 1.8 million valid signatures, 1.12 million signatures that would go to the repair process. This is what has been approved. In any case, two weeks ago we submitted our databases to the Democratic Coordinator and to the Commando Ayacucho, so that we can compare notes and determine if there are any gross or flagrant errors that we might have committed, which we will correct that before we go to the repairs.

GW: So have there been any corrections?

JR: Yes, but nothing major.

GW: A few weeks ago Francisco Carrasquero said that the OAS and Carter Center were biased. What can you say about this?

JR: I think the relation between the CNE and the Carter Center and the OAS has been very complicated, with ups and downs. I think they have collaborated with the electoral council and the council presented them with all of the facilities they wanted, something which no country in the world has done, so that they can supervise all of the processes that we organized. This is an unprecedented event. Never before have we collected signatures for a recall referendum. And, despite this, the OAS and the Carter Center have taken positions that went against some of the agreements we had reached about the signature collection. For example, when they issued their statement about the signatures with similar handwriting, they took a position that was very similar to the one of the opposition. And this went against an agreement that we had with them, which was that they would not issue any kind of public opinion without first consulting with the electoral council.

Currently, they have been helping us with the conversations with the opposition and the Commando Ayacucho that we had, so as to reach an agreement about the repair process.

GW: So the presence of the OAS and Carter Center has helped?

JR: To me it seems necessary and important and I think that one could expand the international observation for the repair process. We are exploring this now.

GW: Why is it necessary?

JR: Well, the more observers there are, the less people will feel that the observers are leaning towards one side or the other.

GW: Why did the electoral council reject the OAS and Carter Center proposal to take a statistical sample of the signatures?

JR: I was involved in the discussion with the opposition and the Carter Center and the OAS, where we discussed the proposal to take a statistical sample of the finger prints of the “planillas planas.” The opposition made a proposal at that time of sampling 170 finger prints, out of a universe of three million signatures, they proposed to evaluate 170 finger prints and signatures. Later, the OAS and Carter Center made a proposal that was less ludicrous, which included 1,200 signatures. The statistical experts we consulted said that a statistical sample had to be sufficiently large, so that the margin of error would be very small. The recall referendum petition is not an opinion poll. Every signature counts. If there are 2,436,082 signatures, there is no recall referendum. But if there are 2,436,084 signatures then a recall referendum will be convoked. We noticed that there would be a margin of error of between 5% and 10% – if it were 10% we are talking about 300,000 signatures. This could have provided us with a result that would not have allowed us to eliminate the reasonable doubts the electoral council has about the signatures. In this sense we established a mechanism that allows us to clarify the doubts.

I am convinced now that we should not have allowed so much interference of the actors in the recall process in the collection of signatures, with so few controls, which has now brought us to so many distortions, so many complexities, at the time of verification. I would have done the signature collection the same way we are now going to do the repair process: controlled by the national electoral council, with voter registration rolls, with electoral officials, and with witnesses.

GW: I recall that when the norms were first discussed, the possibility was raised that a statistical sample would be taken of the finger prints. Why was that idea originally dismissed?

JR: Yes, I was willing to discuss the idea of a statistical sample early on. The proposals that the statistical advisors of the electoral council made were so complicated, we would have needed two or three weeks to implement them. It is much faster to simply use the repair process.

GW: So how was it possible, if we assume many of the signatures with similar handwriting are fake, how could so many signatures, over 800,000, with so many witnesses, under the eyes of the National Guard, a witness from each side, two CNE officials, and international observers, be fraudulent?

JR: We never said that all of these signatures are fraudulent. We said, we don’t understand how it could be that if we told the actors in the recall process, if we publicized it in the press, if we issued instructions that say that every person should fill out, in their own handwriting, except those who had impediments to do so – which is what we said, that if that is the case, then someone may assist and a note of the assistance is made on the form. This was present in all of the instructions that the electoral council issued. The question that is often asked is Why? If they knew that it was not allowed, why did they collect up to 800,000 signatures in this way? In the process of investigating this, we noticed that in many cases it is clear that there were signatures themselves where the handwriting was very similar. We also found forms with consecutive identification numbers. For example, if my ID number is 682,483, then the next ones were 484, 485, 486, and so on. An amazing coincidence. Then there are the ones where dead people signed, which is not an easy trick, to die and then go to a signature collection location. The place where we found the most of these types of issues were in the forms with similar handwriting and in the traveling[3] forms. We did not say that we would invalidate all of these signatures, nor did we say that all of these signatures were fraudulent. That is part of the media manipulation. What we said is that this is where there is a reasonable doubt because we have found many distortions. The only way to correct for these distortions is that the electoral council certifies what the citizens truly meant to express with their signatures.

It is said that one should favor the popular will. I am in agreement with this. The popular will can be destroyed or impeded if you are so rigid that people cannot express themselves. But it can also be impeded if you are so lax that you allow a minority to derail this will.

GW: Does the CNE have any figures about how many signatures are with a similar handwriting, I mean, not just the personal data but the signatures themselves?

JR: We took some samples that provided us with evidence for such situations. We studied the fingerprints of the planillas planas and 23% of the forms with similar handwriting, versus only 8% of the other forms had what is commonly known as the fingerprint of the cheater. These are fingerprints that are made with the tip of the thumb and which cannot be analyzed. This is something that provoked doubts for us. How could this be, that the number is more than doubled? So we found these fingerprints of the tips of thumbs. That seemed very strange to me. That is, it appears to me that there was an unacceptable distortion in the signature collection process, in the registration of fingerprints and in the failure to follow the norms set by the electoral council.

GW: Why is that the requirement for each signer to fill out their own information was only in the instructions and not in the recall referendum norms? This has caused quite a bit of controversy that it was only part of the instructions.

JR: Well, that is not quite true. The norms do say that filling out the forms is something very personal (personalissimo). It’s true that there is a certain amount of controversy over this, but that’s why we’re going to the repair process. If it had not been controversial, we would have simply invalidated the signatures in question.

GW: Something else that has provoked a lot of controversy was that in the beginning of the verification process about 5% of the signatures were submitted to the technical council for further verification, but about halfway through the verification process the figure jumped to 50% and subsequently the forms with the low percentage were re-examined and sent to the technical council at the same 50% rate as the other forms.

JR: This has to do precisely with the forms with similar handwriting. That is, when the CNE realized that there were a very high number of forms with similar handwriting, the directorate considered it necessary to make a decision about these forms. So as to maintain the principle of symmetry and equality, it decided to revise all of the signatures with the same criteria.

GW: What do you think will happen? Will the opposition participate in the repair process?

JR: I am almost certain that the opposition and the Commando Ayacucho will participate in the repair process because people can participate to either exclude themselves from or include themselves in the list. But even if they do not participate, the council is obligated to hold the repair process.

GW: If the opposition does not participate, what would be the consequence?

JR: We are obligated to hold the process in any case. We have made a very hard effort to assure that they participate. The ideal situation would be that the actors of the recall process participate. We have given the opposition very many guarantees for their participation. Now, it is also true that there is much internal conflict within the opposition, which is why the conversations between the opposition and the CNE have not been that easy.

GW: Now the National Electoral Directorate has once again made a proposal for the dates of the repair process. This is not the first time. The directorate has made proposals for dates before. Are these new dates definite?

JR: Yes, the Directorate has proposed new dates for the repair process. Recall that previously the process was postponed because of the Supreme Court decisions, where the opposition had filed injunctions against the electoral council in the Electoral Chamber of the Court, which was subsequently annulled by the Constitutional Chamber and so on. During this time about three or four weeks were lost. We had said on various opportunities that the longest path to get to the presidential recall referendum is the judicial path, of the Supreme Court, which could take six or seven months.

GW: If there is no other interference from the part of the courts, are the dates that were presented recently definite?

JR: Yes. We have already elaborated a complete chronogram of activities. But this also depends on the actors, on what they do in the next few days.

GW: What else could they do to delay the process?

JR: [laughs] I have no idea. Their capacity to come up with things is amazing.

GW: Do you think that the full Supreme Court will issue a ruling on this matter?

JR: There is a firm ruling of the court’s Constitutional Chamber. It corresponds to the Constitutional Chamber. According to article 72 of the constitution, it is the Constitutional Chamber to whom recall referenda correspond. The one which has recognized all of the corresponding elements with regard to the recall referenda is the Constitutional Chamber, who named us, so that we could organize the recall referenda, was the Constitutional Chamber.

It is a fact that in the filling out of the recall referendum petition forms, no one voted. The vote comes later, if 20% of the electorate activate the referendum. As such, the Electoral Chamber should not consider a procedure that is named in the constitution and that the Constitutional Chamber must interpret. We will only abide by the sentence of the Constitutional Chamber and they have issued a firm ruling on the matter, which nullifies the sentence of the Electoral Chamber. I really doubt that the issue will go to the full court.

GW: Thank you very much for the interview.

[1] Commando Ayacucho is the pro-government coalition of parties, which is responsible for electoral issues this season.

[2] This is most likely in reference to Sumate, the NGO that took over many of the opposition’s logistical work in organizing the petition drive for a presidential recall referendum.

[3] Traveling forms were those that were not bound to a specific signature collection location, but could be taken to places where people with mobility problems, such as hospitals, could sign.