Successful Rehearsal of Venezuela Recall Referendum Gives Glimpse of Outcome

A rehearsal of the new voting system satisfied election officials and technicians. Pro-Chavez politicians say results of rehearsal may predict final outcome.

Venezuela National Electoral Council (CNE) board member Jorge Rodriguez
4,000 centers around the country were set up to test the effectiveness of the new voting system, according to Venezuela National Electoral Council (CNE) board member Jorge Rodriguez.

Caracas, Venezuela. Jul 19 ( Last Sunday, less than a month before the recall referendum to decide whether Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and several opposition lawmakers should leave their posts, hundreds of thousands Venezuelans participated in a rehearsal to test the logistics of the vote and to allow the electorate to become familiar with the new electronic machines to be used in the recall.

Touch-screen voting machines were set up in 4,000 centers around the country to test the effectiveness and security of the new system, according to National Electoral Council (CNE) board member Jorge Rodriguez

The technical logistics of the recall are being handled by the CNE and the private SBC consortium formed by Smartmatic, Venezuelan software company Bitza Corp., and the telecom firm Cantv.

According to CNE officials, the rehearsal met 100% of their expectations.

“The functioning of the machines was first class,” said CNE board member Ezequiel Zamora, who actually voted against the use of the machines earlier this year. According to the official, the only major problem was related to the late setup of the machines at some centers due to miscommunication among technicians. Zamora said to be drafting a document
Officials at Smartmatic also expressed their satisfaction with the drill. Smartmatic president Antonio Mujica said that their expectations regarding the time voters would take to exercise their constitutional rights, were met successfully. Encrypted transmission of the results was also tested.

Participants took between five and fifteen seconds in front of the machines to vote.

The machines’ accuracy and security have been questioned by both pro-Chavez and opposition political commentators and officials, pointing to failures and controversies around the U.S. election system. Unlike the machines to be used in the upcoming U.S. elections, the Venezuelan machines produce a paper copy of each vote that the voter must deposit into a ballot to allow for double-checking of the results. Also unlike most automated systems used in the U.S., the source code will be available for inspection. The SAES-3000 machines manufactured by Olivetti, have never been used in large scale elections.

Rehearsal may predict final outcome

Instead of voting “yes” or “no”, as in the real referendum, voters were asked to pick between the two most popular local professional baseball teams; the Caracas Lions, and the Magallanes Sailors.

Extra official results gave the Magallanes team an estimated 60% of support against 40% for the Lions. Pro-Chavez political commentators said that the results of the rehearsal can be used to predict how people will vote in the actual recall. It is a well known fact that President Chavez is a huge fan of the Magallanes Sailors. On the other hand, the Caracas Lions are owned by media billionaire Gustavo Cisneros, a strong Chavez opponent who is believed to be one of the opposition’s main financiers.

CNE board member Francisco Carrasquero told journalists that the rehearsal was only of technical character to test the logistics, and no political conclusions should be drawn from the drill.

The extra official results are consistent with recent polls that gave Chavez up to 57% of support.

Opposition leaders are being urged to intensify their campaign which seems mild compared to that of pro-Chavez organizers. “Chavez’s numbers continue to grow, while the opposition looks more weak, until they start addressing their followers with a more solid message,” said Vicente Leon, the director of Datanalisis, a polling firm which is perceived to oppose Chavez. “The opposition’s light message does not allow for a frontal attack on Chavez, who has introduced an artificial enemy, [U.S. President George] Bush into the race. The opposition camp seems uneasy,” said Leon. Chavez has used evidence of U.S. financing for Venezuela opposition groups to say that the recall is a battle between him and Bush. “We must have more visibility in the streets,” admitted oposition leader Pompeyo Marquez on a radio interview.

Minor problems

In the state of Lara, voting machine operators were not given the correct information about the opening time, which caused delays and complaints from voters who participated in the drill. Other problems such as power failures, and lack of paper for the voting machines, were actually artificially generated to test the contingency measures to be implemented during the referendum.

In the state of Anzoategui, a high percentage of the registered electorate took part in the rehearsal. “People enthusiastically lined up eager to get to know the voting machines,” said Juan Guaramaima a regional coordinator for the pro-Chavez campaign. No major problems were reported there.

Surprisingly, the Caracas region where the CNE is headquarters are located, presented more problems than states in the interior, according to CNE board member Ezequiel Zamora.

3.000 members of the armed forces participated in the drill, guarding the voting centers, according to Army General Gustavo Reyes Rangel.

The Venezuelan recall referendum will be monitored by a wide range of international observers, including the Organization of American States, the Carter Center, Nobel Price winners, foreign ex-Presidents, intellectuals and academics from all continents.