Media Fails to Inform Public about Shifting Opposition Demands in Post-Election Venezuela

Alex Main looks at what recent mainstream media coverage of the situation in Venezuela has conveniently left out, and argues that the coverage may be helping promote the climate of tension.


“Venezuela to audit votes without opposition conditions” reads the headline of a BBC article published over the weekend.  According to the piece, Venezuela’s electoral authority “will not carry out the full recount demanded by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.”  A USA Today article from last Thursday notes that “Capriles said the opposition would not participate in the audit because the National Electoral Council did not meet its demand for an examination of registers containing voters’ signatures and fingerprints.”  An Associated Press headline – “Government formally rejects top-to-bottom Venezuela vote audit, heightening tensions” – suggests that the Electoral Council’s rejection of the opposition’s demands is stoking the flames of political conflict in the country.

As is often the case in the media’s coverage of Venezuela, a crucial piece of context is missing from these and other articles on the recent decisions of the National Electoral Council (known by its Spanish initials as CNE).  Faithful readers of our blog will remember that Henrique Capriles, after the CNE announced that he’d lost the elections by a narrow margin of around 270,000 votes (narrowed down to 224,000 votes following the final count of votes cast abroad), refused to accept the results and immediately called for a recount, though other opposition spokespeople called instead for a “complete audit” of the voting machine receipts.  After first calling on his supporters to take to the streets, leading to violent clashes in which over half a dozen people were reportedly killed, Capriles finally formally filed a set of demands to the CNE.  Subsequently, on April 18th, the CNE agreed to audit the remaining 46% of boxes of voting machine receipts that had not yet been verified (54% of the boxes had been previously verified in the presence of witnesses from both parties). 

What AP, USA Today, BBC and others fail to mention in their most recent articles is that Capriles accepted the CNE’s April 18th decision to proceed with the audit of the remaining voting receipt boxes, and said that the opposition would participate in the process.  According to AFP and other sources, Capriles said that the opposition campaign “accepts what the CNE (…) has announced to the country. We will be there in the audit.  We consider that the problems are in these 12,000 boxes (that will finally be opened in this audit).  We will undoubtedly be able to show the country the truth.”

Yet, soon after Capriles publicly accepted the CNE’s decision, he and others from the opposition began to shift their demands.  After originally claiming that a full audit of the voting receipts would shed light on the alleged fraud that had occurred – initially claiming that their own quick count showed Capriles winning by 300,000 votes – the opposition decided to focus primarily on the election’s voting record books (cuadernos de votación).  These books, present at each voting station, are where voters place their fingerprints and signatures after having voted electronically and deposited the paper receipts reflecting their voting choice in sealed boxes.  According to opposition leader Antonio Ledezma these books are in fact “where the crime has taken place.”

How these books could provide evidence of fraud isn’t clear.  Among the many safeguards found in Venezuela’s voting system are electronic fingerprint detectors which verify a voter’s identity and prevent him or her from voting twice.  Furthermore, witnesses from both the opposition and pro-government parties are present at every voting station.  In these conditions, whether or not the record books are systematically filled in correctly by voters, it is extremely unlikely that anyone could get away with voting twice. 

One thing is certain though.  The audit of some 15 million signatures and fingerprints found in the voting record books would be a very long process indeed, probably significantly longer than the thirty-day audit of the remaining boxes of voting machine receipts that has yet to begin.  Given the infinitesimally small odds that the audit of remaining voting receipt boxes will produce significant discrepancies (as we showed inthis statistical calculation last week), it appears that the opposition is mainly intent on trying to maintain a climate of uncertainty and political tension for as long as possible.  By failing to provide its readers with critical background information on the opposition’s actions to date, much of the major English language media may also be helping promote this climate of tension.

The U.S. and U.K. major media have also reported very little of the useful background information that CNE president Tibisay Lucena provided Venezuelans late last week in a long statement explaining how the audit of the remaining voting receipt boxes would take place and why the CNE wasn’t acceding to the opposition’s new demands.  She noted that the CNE has made many concessions to the opposition, resulting in an electoral process with 18 different audits, all of which involve witnesses from both parties.   Some 14 audits had already been agreed to by the CNE in previous elections (they are detailed here), and as Lucena explains:

During the period prior to the [April 14, 2013] election, the team of citizen Capriles asked for further guarantees, which were added to the other audits that already form an integral part of the electoral system; and which the Electoral Power approved after considering that these were reasonable requests, within the law, and seeking to create a favourable climate for the event.

At the time, they requested the inclusion of a witness for every candidate in the ‘Information for Voters’ or SIE (Sistema de Información al Elector) transmission room. This was approved. 

They asked for a witness to be included in the polling booth member contingency room. This was approved.

They asked for a new audit of the removable memory with voting machine data. Approved.

Regarding the opposition’s additional demands, such as that of a full audit of the voting record books, Lucena said that they were “impossible to approve the request in the stated terms, since these are not provided for in the law.”

Lucena also commented on a document that the opposition delivered to the CNE contesting the election results:

The document we received on Wednesday 17th, signed by citizen Capriles, is in itself an attempt at contesting [the election], to which he has a legitimate right, as we have insisted. However, the document fails to meet two conditions, in order to be responded to by the National Electoral Council. Firstly, it is not up to the CNE to receive contestation requests in these cases. The Organic Law of Electoral Processes clearly states, in its article 202, that it is up to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice to consider any resort against proceedings issued by this National Electoral Council. And secondly, the document is accompanied by some annexes, which would not allow the Electoral Power to undertake any investigation regarding the complaints, because these do not point out with clarity or precision what were the facts supposedly undermining the norms; which polling booths; which records; who are the people involved; what is the possible harm done to voters. Anyone who puts forward charges on such a scale must provide a minimum of necessary elements, in order to ascertain whether these charges are indeed suppositions of fact, as per the norm, and thus their truth may be established.

Though the full document that Lucena cites doesn’t appear to be publicly available yet, the opposition has circulated a PDF document – available here – which appears to be one of the document “annexes” to which Lucena refers.  If this document is meant to make a persuasive case for fraud, or any other irregularities that allowed Maduro to somehow steal the election, it isn’t very successful.  It starts off by stating that 535 electronic voting machines broke down (about 1.4 percent of the nearly 40,000 machines in use during the elections) without mentioning that the CNE had a contingency in place that allowed them to rapidly replace these machines.  Nowhere have allegations emerged that individuals failed to vote because a machine broke down, and as noted in our April 14 live blog, election monitors witnessed broken machines being quickly replaced with functional ones. 

Lucena also makes a few comments on some of the other slides in this powerpoint presentation:

There are also two plates with texts denouncing that President Maduro obtained between 95% and 100% of votes in a number of polling booths. We are unaware as to how this implies any irregularity, since it is the expression of the electorate’s behaviour. Note that Capriles obtained over 95% of the vote in 58 polling booths.

Finally, there is a plate with the claim that witnesses were removed from 286 polling centres. This Electoral Power received no complaint of this kind on Election Day. But, in addition, there are only 6 instances of this situation recorded in the list of reports, which makes up Annex A, and in none of the cases mentioned do the minimum elements exist, in order to confirm the truthfulness of this information.

These annexes are presented as proof of alleged electoral fraud, and as the basis for requesting a revision, as though these could be said to constitute massive irregularities, affecting the results issued by the National Electoral Council.

This request fails even to recognise the very nature of the paper backup for every vote cast:  close to 15 million voters voted on April 14th and verified, through this [paper] backup, that their vote had been successfully registered in the machine, as they had intended. This Electoral Power did not receive a single complaint where a voter claimed that the [paper] backup reflected a different option to that selected.