Huge tasks and few resources for the new National Electoral Council

Interview with Tibisay Lucena, first substitute for the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE)
"We do not have a registry of signatures. The banks do have them... My recommendation is that we publish the signatures. And then people can check them out", said Lucena on the question of how the CNE will check the validity of signatures.

Tibisay Lucena has been deeply involved in Venezuela’s electoral system ever since she returned from earning her Ph.D. in political science in the U.S. in 1998. As one of Venezuela’s most experienced election officials, pro-Chávez deputies placed her name near the top of the list of principal members of the CNE. However, when the Supreme Court recently named the members of the CNE she was named as first substitute to the CNE president, Francisco Carrasquero, and as member to the National Electoral Directorate. The CNE is now considered to be balanced between two pro-Chávez members, two pro-opposition members, and one who appears to be neutral (CNE President Carrasquero).

What was your position in the CNE before you became a substitute for the CNE President?

I worked as a consultant for the constitutional assembly, where I worked with the commission on political rights, referenda, the definition of participatory democracy, and the electoral power. I was there for the entire process. After that I was named to the general directorate of the electoral power, where I was in charge of making sure that the electoral power directives were put into practice. We designed the electoral power. The new electoral power is quite different from the electoral body that existed up until now.

One of my first tasks was the drafting of the organic law of the electoral power. We introduced this law to the National Assembly. The whole process took almost two years, working with deputies from both the pro-government side and the opposition.

My tasks now are as first substitute for the president of the National Electoral Council and also as member of the national electoral directorate. That is, the national electoral directorate is a body that is subordinated to the national electoral council and is responsible for the technical aspects of planning and organizing all electoral processes, for popular representative office, for referenda, and for elections of civil society that fall under our administration.

What would you say are the most important tasks for the CNE now?

Well, I would say that there are five main tasks, with many mini-tasks. First, there are the recall referenda. This is a very important matter that we have to discuss, all members of the CNE. That is, what will happen with the national recall referendum [of the president] and what will happen with the regional and local referenda [of governors and mayors]. Secondly, we have the elections for the next year. We have only ten months to organize these, for governors and regional and local elections. In terms of the organization of these we are a little bit behind schedule. We should have started working on these three or four months ago, so now we have to rush. That’s the time frame most countries in the world use for organizing elections, not the two or three months we have used in the recent past. For the past three or four years we have been organizing elections in two or three months, which is not good because it undermines transparency and reliability. Third, we need to work on the transfer of power from the executive to the electoral branch, such as the responsibility for the national electoral registry. This is a huge task. Fourth, we need to decide how we will restructure the CNE itself, so that it fits with the structure prescribed by the constitution and the organic law of the electoral power. Finally, there is the legislative agenda, which is necessary, such as the law governing electoral processes, the law for political participation, the law for the state civil registry, and a whole variety of regulations that are necessary, such as the regulations for organizing referenda, the regulations for electoral civil servants, etcetera, which are all listed in the transitional provisions in the organic law of the electoral power.

Assuming that the signatures for the recall referendum are accepted, given that there is so much for the electoral power to do, do you believe that it is possible to organize a recall referendum this year? Carlos Escarra [former Supreme Court judge and prominent Chávez-supporter] recently said that it was impossible.

I cannot answer that question directly. Still, there are several things that the new CNE has to decide. First, they have to decide if the format in which the questions were collected were correct and acceptable. Is the question acceptable? Only then they can we begin verifying the signatures. But before that can happen, the CNE has to decide if the signature collection process itself was legal. Whether it is legal to collect signatures before the end of the half-way point of the president. If everything is fine, then OK, the next step is to check the signatures. Then, one has to determine whether they are enough signatures. Only then we can call a recall referendum. Only then can we answer the question about whether we have enough time to organize the referendum. But, if all of the legal requirements are fulfilled, we have to do it, no matter what, we have to do it. In the past the CNE has been able to organize elections in two or three months.

A member of the National Assembly, Luis Tascon, said the other day that the CNE does not have an actual registry of signatures.

That’s absolutely true. We do not have a registry of signatures. The banks do have them, though (laughs). [1]

So how can you check the signatures, then?

Well, that is something that has to be answered. My recommendation is that we publish the signatures. And then people can check them out.

So people would check them and request their name to be removed if they did not actually sign?

Exactly. Also, one can check the signatures for the handwriting – if every signature on a page is written with the same pen and handwriting. We have seen this in the past, with the petition for the consultative referendum [in February 2003], where one person obviously signed entire sheets of the petition. It was very easy to detect.

You said that one of the big tasks is to deal with the voter registry. How can one purify the registry?

There are a lot of myths about the registry. It’s true, the dead have voted in the past and they probably still will in the next election. However, it is minimal. It does not change the result of an election. But it makes a lot of noise. It is an easy point to make. Nevertheless, the CNE has been making an effort to remove the deceased names from the registry. We work together with the communities to get the lists of the dead and to then purge these names from the list.

Does the CNE have enough resources to carry out all of its tasks?

No, we don’t. Not even to pay the payroll. But, I am sure that if we take advantage of the honeymoon we have now, because everyone is so happy about the naming of the new CNE, then we can try to get some more resources and make some of the first improvements that the institution needs. We are falling apart. There is a lot of confidence, though, that the resources will start coming in.

Can you make any kind of prediction as to which votes might come first, the presidential recall or the other recall referenda or both at the same time?

This has to be discussed. There are those who think that the votes should be processed in the order in which the petitions were received. Whatever came first would go to vote first. What that would mean is that the presidential recall referendum would be referendum number 76.

So 75 other recall referenda have been submitted?

Yes, mostly for mayors.

And for National Assembly deputies?

Yes, but for that there is no procedure for this type of recall referendum. There is no law governing these.

But doesn’t the constitution say that every elected official can be recalled?

Yes, exactly. But it also says that the recall votes have to exceed the number of votes the official originally received. But how can we know exactly how many votes the deputies got? Many of these were elected through a list, via the d’Hondt method [of proportional voting]. Even for this the constitution says that the recall has to be regulated via a law, but the law does not exist yet. This is different from the posts which were elected via the majority system. 60% of the deputies were elected directly, though, and those can be revoked.

Regarding the order of the referenda, there are other people who believe that due to the political situation, the presidential recall should be first.

But is there a basis for that argument legally?

No, legally there is no basis.

In the constitution it says that for a recall referendum as many people have to vote in favor of a recall as originally voted for the person whose mandate is being recalled. But what if that number is still less than 50%? That is, if participation was fairly low, as it was during the last presidential vote, it is theoretically possible that with a high turn-out for the recall, more people vote against Chávez in the recall than originally voted in his favor, but these pro-recall votes are still less than those who vote in support of Chávez in the referendum. What happens then?

There is no regulation for that. It is an empty space in space in the law. It would have to wait for a Supreme Court interpretation or a law. That’s why it is necessary to first pass a law that regulates this issue; that sets the rules for the recall referendum.

[1] Government supporters have accused Banks of supplying customer data to the opposition’s presidential recall referendum.