How it Works: Venezuela’s New Voting Machines

The president of SmatMatic, the company that will provide the voting machines for the upcoming recall referendum, explains in detail how the machines work and how their transparency will make fraud practically impossible.

SmartMatic president Antonio Mujica laid to rest all questions about the reliability of the SmartMatic touch screen voting machines to be used in the August 15 presidential recall referendum. Mujica fielded questions in a Sunday night interview conducted by Ernesto Villegas on Venezolana de Television (VTV). 

“The machine is very portable, which facilitates their logistics (movement and setup) during electoral processes,” indicated Mujica. The fourth generation machines weigh about six kilograms, and have a touch screen to register the vote electronically. The machine also prints a paper record that allows the process to be audited. “The machine’s internal electronics were designed from the beginning specifically for electoral events, with security features dedicated to electoral processes.”

Mujica refuted rumors appearing in the private media that these machines have been used only for lotteries. “This machine was made by Olivetti. We subcontract to that company, which uses its factories in Rome to manufacture these machines. Among many other things, Olivetti makes machines used for lotteries.” This seems to be the source of that rumor.

Mujica explained that demonstration machines will be set up throughout the country at commercial centers and plazas, and the National Elections Council (CNE) will conduct an educational campaign.

20,000 machines will be set up the day of the recall referendum, and 1,000 replacement machines will be on stand-by should they be necessary. All machines will be guarded by Plan Republica. Each machine is registered with the National Totalization Center, so that if an unregistered machine tries to connect to the system to add votes, it will be detected and rejected.

SmartMatic Voting Machine

Differences between these and past voting machines

Mujica indicated that these machines are completely different from the third generation machines used by the CNE in past elections. Third generation machines use “hand ballots, and afterward, the machine reads the ballot with an optical scanner. That technology has a very important intrinsic problem, and that is, when one introduces the ballot, the machine makes many errors.” He confirmed that the old machines failed to read between 5 and 15 percent of the ballots, which created dangers in counting the votes. “The new machines avoid that by permitting a direct vote from the screen.”

The voting process

As is the tradition in Venezuela, the voting table president will sit at the table with the rest of the electoral officials, with the electoral notebook (registry) and the ballot box. The officials will be kept separate from the actual voting machines to keep the voting secret.

Step 1: The voter arrives at the table and presents his ID card to the president of the table.

Step 2: The president searches the notebook for the voter, and if he is in the registry, the voter is permitted to sign and stamp his fingerprint in the notebook, indicating that he exercised his right to vote. The president holds the card while the person votes. Up to this point, the procedure is the same as for traditional voting.

Step 2 – Voter registers

Step 3: At this point, the president pushes a button connected to the voting machine, which unlocks it, and authorizes the voter to cast his ballot. When the button is pushed, the machine emits an audible tone that allows everyone, members of the voting table and witnesses, to know that the machine has been activated for a person to vote.

Step 4: The voter proceeds to the machine to register his vote. The machine must be located in an area that allows the vote to be cast secretly, as the Constitution ordains. The machine can be on the other side of a partition, or in a security booth.

Step 5: The voter presses the part of the screen that corresponds to the option that he supports in the referendum. The screen will have the referendum question, two squares with the options “Yes” and “No” (if that’s how the referendum question is set up), and a square at the bottom of the screen labeled “Vote” to register the vote. The voter must press one of the two voting options, and the square selected will be highlighted. At this moment, the voter could still change his vote by pressing the other option, and can change as many times as he likes.

Step 5 – Voter casts electronic ballot

Step 6: Once the voter has settled on an option, he must push the square labeled “Vote” to register his decision. Upon pressing “Vote,” a sound will be emitted, telling the people at the voting table that the voter has finished the process. At this point, a physical record of the vote is printed out.

Mujica explains, “The physical vote is a paper that records all of the data of the event: CNE, 2004 Referendum. It also has a code for the voting center location, the table, and the volume (electoral notebook). It has a security code, which is very important to avoid falsification. This is all printed on security paper along with the question, and the voter’s response.”

Step 7: The voter takes the paper and- confirms that the question and the vote registered are correct. He folds the paper in half to guarantee privacy, returns to the voting table, and puts the paper ballot in the ballot box in front of the table members and witnesses.

Step 7 – Voter casts paper ballot

Step 8: The table president returns the voter’s ID card. The card is marked with indelible ink, and the voter is allowed to leave.

Problems and contingencies

Mujica explained that 40 engineers have been working for more than two years to solve problems and contingencies (what would happen if…?), coming up with a troubleshooting guide. “2,500 possible contingencies have been identified, and for each one there is a response so that the voting process is not altered.”

The voting center will have one or more operators who receive the machine in the morning and set it up, and disconnect it at the end of the day. Furthermore, they will provide services should something go wrong with the machine. These are SmartMatic officials, and not CNE officials. “Their bosses will be the election table members, and the operators can’t do anything without asking and receiving permission.”

Should a machine be damaged after registering votes, the machine operator will call the SmartMatic main office and ask for an immediate replacement. “There will be 1,000 CANTV trucks throughout Venezuela with 1,000 replacement machines. The trucks carrying replacement machines will be escorted by Plan Republica. There is a security procedure to exchange the machines, and a removable memory so that the votes from the damaged machine can be transferred to the new machine.”

The new system of removable memory is different from the previous system of flash cards that created much controversy. The new memory system is inside the machine, and cannot be manipulated without opening the machine. The machines can only be unlocked and opened using a key, and only the operator holds the key for that particular machine. The memories are removed only if the machines are damaged (and must be placed in the replacement machine).


Villegas: What would happen if someone pushed the button to activate the voting machine, and there wasn’t a voter yet?

Mujica: The machine would wait for a specified length of time (a minute in the case of the test machines), and if someone didn’t arrive, the machine would automatically deactivate. Upon deactivation, the machine would print a paper indicating “The time limit for voting has expired. Ask for help from a table member.” In those cases, the voter would carry the paper to a table member, who would have to press the button again to activate the machine and give the voter another opportunity to vote.

Villegas: And if they push the button and someone comes up to the machine without permission? Or, if the table president pushes the button twice?

Mujica: In the first case, that would be bad. A vote would be recorded. This machine makes it difficult, compared to previously used systems, to cast votes fraudulently or with bad intentions. But, it doesn’t prevent everything. Someone could press the button twice (allowing a person to vote twice), for example. For that reason, table members and witnesses must be alert. In this case, the voter would have two papers, or would appear in the electoral notebook as if he had already voted, which would permit the detection of fraud.

In a manual system, it’s very easy to falsify votes, whether it be through the results lists (acta mata voto), or card stuffing. In the machines used previously by the CNE, it was more difficult to use fraud, but one of the means (that could be used) was to fill out a series of voting cards at home, carry them to the voting centers, and create a diversion so the witnesses left. Then the person could put the card into the machine to register a fraudulent vote. The old machines were always open to receive votes. This machine, on the other hand, is always closed to receive votes, and one can only vote when the table president, in the presence of table members and witnesses, activates it.

Villegas: And if the electricity goes out?

Mujica: The machines are connected to a power source that permits them to operate for up to 16 hours. The elections process won’t last that long.

Villegas: Could the paper run out?

Mujica: The machine can print up to 2,000 paper receipts, but that many people will never vote on one machine. We estimate that there is one machine for each 600 voters. At each voting center, there will be several machines operating, because one machine is assigned for each table and volume. Each machine has a specified number of voters assigned to it, so after this number is reached, the machine will not permit more votes to be cast.

Manual counting

The machine has two systems of counting: the electronic count that the machine does automatically, and the physical count of the receipts that the machine prints and are kept in ballot boxes.

Mujica explained that the CNE’s Totalization Center receives the electronic count. “At the end of the voting process, the machine counts all of the votes and prints a count of the votes, from which we can say how many Yes’s and how many No’s, and how many total votes were cast. A count is printed out, with space for all of the table members and witnesses to sign. Seven copies of the count are printed out so that all of the political parties can have a copy, as well as CUFAN (Unified Command of the Armed Forces).”

“The machine is connected to the CNE and will send the machine’s total count in electronic format, as well as each and every one of the votes with their value, to the CNE Totalization Center, where all of the votes (from all machines) will be added up to give the results for those famous partial bulletins until the final result is arrived at.”

“There will not be regional totals. Since the presidential referendum is an event of national character, the totalization will be completed by the National Elections Board (JNE) at the National Totalization Center in Caracas. The recall referenda for National Assemblymen will have regional totals,” Mujica added.

Immediate audit

The receipts deposited in the ballot box are another copy of the vote that can be used to audit the process. When asked if the papers will be counted the same night as an audit, Mujica replied that “the one who decides that is the CNE, not us. That is one of the strong discussions taking place at this moment, the so-called ‘auditoria en caliente’ (immediate audit), and I wouldn’t like to go into details now, especially because different people have different ideas of what that means. What’s certain is that physical votes will be there, and they can be audited against the electronic results.”

“If there are any contradictions, undoubtedly these (paper) votes could be used for a recount and to compare the results with the electronic ones.” Mujica indicated that the technology is the most transparent in the world, and expressed hope that other companies would take advantage of this technology.

The software

Mujica indicated that the machines’ software is certified by three distinct and independent groups at the company: the development group, the data group, and quality assurance. Then, the software is presented to the CNE for certification and to verify that no votes are already registered in the machines.

An image of the software is created to be loaded into each one of the 20,000 machines. For each machine, one CNE member certifies that the software in the machine is correct, and that no votes have been registered. A count, called the “zero count,” is printed out and the machine is placed in a sealed box. Then, the machines are taken to the voting centers.

At the voting centers, table members and witnesses assure that the machines arrive without any broken seals. If seals are broken, a replacement machine must be requested.

If the seals are good, the operator opens the box, removes the machine, installs it, and prints another “zero count” to certify that there are no votes stored in the machine. Then, the actual voting can take place.

Transferring the information

Mujica indicated that the information will be transmitted to the CNE via telephone lines, or in some cases, by satellite, always in encrypted form. The encrypting is “extremely rigorous, with a public/private key of 128 bits, the strongest that exists. To break this code to change the data for just one machine would take a gigantic computation center more than 24 hours, using all of its computational power.”

No one, not even CANTV, will have access to see or modify the data. “This is the same encryption used by New York banks to transfer million dollar amounts to banks in Hong Kong through public telecommunications networks, and that’s something that happens every day in the world, and there have been only a couple of cases in the past 40 years of data being intercepted.”

Translated by Philip Stinard for VHeadline

Source: VHeadline