Venezuela’s Electoral Council’s Rodriguez Says No to In-Process Audits for Referendum

Audits during the recall referendum vote, as the oposition demands, would, according to Rodriguez not be allowed. Independent audits both before and after the vote would. Ties between government and voting machine company to be severed.

Caracas, June 14, 2004—Electoral Council board member Jorge Rodriguez dismissed over the weekend any possibility that the Electoral Council (CNE) would allow audits while the recall referendum vote takes place, as opposition leaders had demanded. He said, “We’re not going to allow a simultaneous audit, because that would sabotage the computerized process, violating it by making it a manual process.”

Venezuela’s new electoral law mandates that voting be automated, but it does not specify exactly how. Rodriguez and other pro-government forces have expressed concern that any return to manual voting would allow the opposition, whose supporters dominate the electoral bureaucracy, to engage in fraud. Opposition supporters, however, say that they fear that the pro-Chavez majority on the electoral council would manipulate the electoral software to produce a voting result favorable to Chavez.

Rodriguez added that independent audits of the machinery both before and after the vote would be allowed.

The previous seven electoral contests were also automated, but used a different technology than the one that is to be used for the presidential recall referendum that is scheduled for August 15. The main difference between the earlier technology and the current one is that the previous one allowed voters to mark a paper ballot, which was then immediately read by a computerized voting machine. This time, however, the voters will indicate their vote on the voting machine first, which then prints out a paper ballot that the voter inserts into a ballot box. CNE officials say that this new system is much more reliable and will allow preliminary results within four hours of the closing of the polls.

Voting machine company to buy back government shares

According to the Miami Herald, Bizta, one of the companies involved in the voting machine consortium (the others being Smartmatic and Cantv), announced that it would buy back the shares the government owns in Bizta. The Venezuelan government had purchased 28% of Bizta’s shares last year and had an official from the Science and Technology Ministry sit on Bizta’s board, in representation of these shares. Opposition leaders said that this constituted a conflict of interest, since Bizta would be in charge of programming the voting machines and would this have an incentive to produce fraudulent voting results.

A company spokesperson, however, said that Bizta would buy back the $200,000 worth of shares and that the Ministry representative would step down from the board. According to Bizta spokesperson Eduardo Correia, “Given our current engagements, even the appearance of a conflict of interest is unacceptable, and as a result, we are repaying the… loan and Omar Montilla is stepping down from our Board of Directors.”

The investment was originally part of a venture capital loan to support fledgling Venezuelan start-ups, which the Ministry of Science and Technology makes regularly.

Many opposition leaders are now suggesting that they will not accept a recall referendum in which the Smartmatic/Bizta/Cantv (SBC) machines are used. Vice-President José Vicente Rangel responded by saying that such statements merely confirm that the opposition is not really interested in a recall referendum.

Ballot question still undecided

The electoral council was supposed to discuss the phrasing of the ballot question today, but the meeting was suspended without explanation. Opposition leaders have said that they will insist on having a “yes” vote mean that Chavez’ presidential mandate should be revoked.

In a slightly surprising turn of events, Chavez said over the weekend that he supports the opposition demand and favors that his supporters vote “no” in order to retain his mandate. Chavez, in reference to former Venezuelan president Jaime Lusinchi, said that the opposition should go with the “yes of Lusinchi,” who is one of Venezuela’s most discredited presidents and had used the phrase as a campaign slogan. Instead, Chavez said, his supporters would stick with the “no of the rebellious.”