Caracas, Venezuela, November 29, 2005—Following bitter arguments between the opposition and Venezuela’s Electoral Council about whether Venezuela’s voting system is secret, the Electoral Council decided yesterday to withdraw one of the voting system’s more controversial elements, the fingerprint scanners. Venezuela is scheduled to hold elections for its legislature, the National Assembly, this coming Sunday, December 4th.
According to the opposition, the fingerprint scanners, which are meant to prevent multiple voting, can store the sequence of voters, just as the voting machines can. If the two data streams are compared, it would be possible to reconstruct how individual voters voted. The Electoral Council denies this, saying that both machines not only scramble the voting order, but are also are protected by passwords that would require the collaboration of all parties to unlock and that the fingerprint scanners are not assigned to specific voting machines.
Electoral Council (CNE) President Jorge Rodriguez made a national announcement yesterday on all television channels, saying the CNE would withdraw the fingerprint scanners. Rodriguez said the CNE decided to withdraw the use of the scanners, not because any of the opposition’s arguments had any merit, but to provide that sector of the population that was swayed by the opposition’s doubts additional security that their vote would be secret.
According to Rodriguez, their own polling data show that 69% of registered voters trust the Venezuelan voting system. It is for the sake of the 29% that say they do not the voting system that the CNE hopes to win over by withdrawing the fingerprint scanners. “We care about this percentage,” said Rodriguez.
The controversy over the fingerprint scanners broke out mid last week, when the opposition party Primero Justicia (Justice First) announced that its investigation showed that the voting machines store the order in which votes were cast, contrary to what the CNE and the voting machine company, Smartmatic, had been saying. According to opposition spokespersons, this voting order could be matched with the electronic voter registry, which scans voters’ fingerprints to verify that the person had not voted already elsewhere with a false ID.
The oppositional elections watch group Sumate (Join Up) had declared several weeks ago that it did not trust the combined use of fingerprint scanners and voting machines and recently hinted that voters should abstain by saying that they should attend church on December 5th.
Primero Justicia representatives told the press that they conducted the test last Wednesday, in the presence of observers of the Organization of American States (OAS) and of the European Union (EU). OAS and EU representatives have not yet commented on the opposition’s test. A representative of the observer group Ojo Electoral (Electoral Eye), a Venezuelan group of prominent pro- and anti-government figures, said that the problem could be solved simply by erasing or formatting the machine’s data, immediately after it had transmitted its totals to the CNE.
CNE President Rodriguez announced shortly afterwards that the CNE would include in its procedures the formatting of both the fixed and the removable memory of the voting machines. Even without such measures, Rodriguez insisted that it is “impossible” to reconstruct the sequence of voters because such an effort would have to involve the complicity of all parties, the armed forces, and considerable technological expertise.
Rodriguez’s national address stressed that the reason Venezuela is implementing automated voting machines is precisely in order to overcome the lack of trust that had developed over decades of manual vote counts, in which much fraud had taken place. According to Rodriguez, the Venezuelan voting system is one of the securest and most transparent in the world.
The voting machines, which a U.S.-Venezuelan consortium provides, involve multiple security features, such as paper ballots that are cast in addition to the automated vote, software signatures that assure the inviolability of the software, removable memory chips in case machines fail, and the open analysis of the software for all political parties and observers.
The machines were used in all electoral contests ever since the August 2004 presidential recall referendum, including the October 2004 gubernatorial and mayoral vote and the August 2005 city council vote. The CNE also deployed the fingerprint scanners in each of these earlier contests.
On Sunday, the CNE, under the observation of all election observers, conducted a test of a random sample of 141 voting machines, representing 0.5% of the 27,330 voting machines, to make sure that they functioned correctly. According to the CNE, there was a zero error rate.