Venezuela’s Electoral Council Presents Details About How and Why it Placed Signatures under Observation

The Electoral Council detailed how citizens can correct council decisions on the validity of their name in the recall referendum petition. Council member Rodriguez presented examples of suspicious signatures which are subject to further verification. Also, Rodriguez denounced death threats against himself and his family.

Caracas, Feb. 29 ( Following many delays, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) announced today how it will process 1.3 million disputed signatures in the opposition’s petition for a recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez. The signatures, which are a little over one third of the 3.4 million the opposition submitted to the CNE last December, are in dispute because the petition forms appear to have been filled out by one person instead of the ten signers per form. These petition forms have come to be known as “writing exercise” forms.

Electoral Council member Jorge Rodriguez during press conference.
Photo: Gregory Wilpert

Jorge Rodriguez, one of the CNE’s principal members, said that the 1.3 million disputed signatures would be verified via a “repair” (“reparo”) process, in which citizens have five days, from March 18 to 22, to either file a confirmation or a denial that they signed the petition for the recall referendum.

The decision comes as Venezuela is going through a new wave of heightened tension in the wake of the electoral council’s decision to not automatically accept the signatures on the “writing exercises” or disputed petition forms and the opposition’s decision to engage in a confrontation with the National Guard.

Exactly 1,000 centers will be set up where citizens may file their corrections to the recall referendum petition. The petition forms will be divided into three categories: rejected signatures, accepted signatures, and signatures under observation. For each of these categories citizens may correct the petition and say whether they should be on list of signers.

Opposition Rejects the Verification Procedure

Venezuela’s opposition has rejected this procedure on the basis that all of the so-called “flat” petition forms should be automatically included in the count of valid signatures. They say that there is no legal basis for invalidating such signatures, since the norms governing the referendum process do not explicitly state that each signer had to fill out their personal data, such as printed name, identification number, and birth date. Two of the five electoral council members, who were nominated by the opposition, voted against the decision to exclude “writing exercise” signatures from the final signature tally. Ever since this decision they have boycotted the election council’s meetings.

Chavez supporters and the two electoral council members who were named by pro-government forces say that the decision is based on the rules because the instructions for filling out the petition forms explicitly stated that each signer had to complete fill out their personal data unless they were physically impaired to do so.

Rodriguez Presented Details about the Disputed Forms

Also, Jorge Rodriguez indicated today that many of the petition forms written in the same handwriting had signatures that were very similar. During the press conference, he presented blown up photos of several petition forms where the signatures looked identical.

Council member Jorge Rodriguez presents blow-ups of signatures where the handwriting looks suspiciously similar.
Photo: Gregory Wilpert

According to Rodriguez, what further raised suspicions in the minds of the three electoral council members who voted in favor continuing the verification process of the disputed signatures, was a statistical sample:

“The electoral directorate decided to take a small random sample of the finger prints on the petition forms. We examined 12,421 finger prints. Of these, 33.7% of the sample had finger prints that were illegible. Of these 33% with illegible fingerprints, 11.7% correspond to fingerprints from the finger tip, which makes it impossible to read the print.”

“When we studied signatures on forms written by the same hand (“writing exercise” forms) the percentage of illegible fingerprints rose to 37% and the percentage of fingertip prints rose to 23%. This strengthens the discussion about the usefulness of employing a statistical sample of all of the disputed forms, which would have resulted in a much more decisive elimination of signatures that the decision we took today.”

Close-up of similar handwriting used for signing petition forms.
Photo: Gregory Wilpert

The Organization of American States and the Carter Center, which are acting as international observers of the referendum process had proposed earlier in the week that the CNE conduct a random statistical sample of the disputed forms which would be carefully examined for their validity and determine a percentage of signatures to be eliminated. The CNE’s majority, however, rejected the proposal with the argument that a statistical sample would not be accurate enough and that it is the CNE’s duty to establish the exact number of signatures for the recall referendum. The CNE’s minority, which is sympathetic to the opposition, embraced the OAS/Carter Center proposal.

Rodriguez Denounces Threats Against Him and other Electoral Officials

Electoral Council member Jorge Rodriguez also told of death threats against him and his family and that of Oscar Battaglini, another council member accused by the opposition of being pro-government. Rodriguez said that the threats are being directed against them via telephone, e-mail, and short wave radio. The threats launched via short wave radio even provided the home address of both council members and encouraged people to go to their home to attack them.

Finally, Rodriguez denounced that another infringement on the privacy of council members. Several major Venezuelan newspapers reprinted anonymous advertisements urging that people call the home, cell phone, and office numbers of the three council members that the opposition accused by the opposition of being alligned with the government. Rodriguez added that while the council rejects this kind of pressure, none of it would have any effect on their decisions.

International observers ask for patience

Jennifer McCoy, a representative for the Carter Center, said that in these momentes of tension, all parties must remain calm. The Carter Center and the OAS have been acting as international observers in the recall referenda process since late 2003. They asked for patience and offered their help so that the CNE can find mechanisms accepted by all parties during the process of re-confirmation of signatures.