National Lawyers Guild
Photo by Jim West, jimwestphoto.com
April 13, 2009
By Michael Ray
On November 23, 2008, Venezuela held regional elections to elect governors, mayors and members of state legislative councils. These regional elections are held every four years and candidates elected will serve from 2008 to 2012. Elections are held on Sundays, which provides more persons the chance to vote.
The National Lawyers Guild sent four members to Venezuela as part of a group of over 130 international election observers, who were invited by the National Electoral Council (CNE) : Karen Weill and Larry Hildes of Bellingham, Washington; Kerry McLean of New York City and Michael Ray of Miami, Florida. Other observers came from various countries throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.
This Guild delegation followed a December, 2007 Guild delegation of 3 observers from the Massachusetts Chapter of the Guild who observed the election on the referendum on constitutional reforms in Venezuela, when voters narrowly rejected a package that would have ended presidential term limits.
An earlier Guild delegation, including Michael Ray, visited Venezuela in 2006.
During that non-election visit, approximately 25 members of the Guild delegation visited a neighborhood community center, met with members of Congress, the Supreme Court, opposition members, an HIV/AIDS clinic, the Attorney General’s office, progressive lawyers, a newspaper editorial board and took a tour of the Telesur televison station. The 2006 delegation was accompanied by Emily Kunstler, who created a video documentary for the Guild. The 2006 delegation produced a report, which can be found on the international committee website
The National Electoral Council (CNE) is an independent body which is in charge of overseeing Venezuelan elections. Under the Bolivarian Constitution - approved by popular referendum in 1999, the year after Chavez was first elected, the CNE was created as one of five independent branches of government, alongside executive, judicial, legislative and citizens power (which includes attorney general, controller and inspector general-type agencies). Three of the five CNE members are nominated by civil society groups, one by national university faculties and one by the citizens’ power. Nominees must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the National Assembly, for a term of seven years. They can be removed by the National Assembly, with approval of the Supreme Court. The Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over the decisions of the CNE.
Venezuela is divided into 23 states and 1 capital district. Each of these is then divided into municipalities, which are then divided into districts. A voter will normally cast four different types of votes: one for governor, one for mayor, one for a single candidate for legislative council, and one for a party list for legislative council.
The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), led by President Hugo Chavez won 17 of the governor races, as well as 81% of all mayoral positions. The opposition won the three largest states - Zulia, Carabobo and Miranda - and the Greater Caracas mayor’s race. The opposition now has control of five states. Out of nearly 17,000,000 registered voters 65% voted.
As a prelude to the 2008 election, according to the Venezuelan Government, 260 public officials were disqualified from holding public office for various acts of corruption pursuant to Article 105 of the Organic Law of the General Accountability Office (LOGCR), a law approved in the National Assembly in 2001, by a majority of deputies, including representatives from opposition parties, including Primero Justicia.
On August 5, 2008 the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled that Article 105 of the LOGCR is constitutional. The sanctions were found to respect due process and the 3 defense rights of the sanctioned, who are provided notice, hearings, opportunities to ask for rehearing before the imposition of any sanctions, then appeal rights thereafter. On December 18, 2008 columnist, Andres Oppenheimer of The Miami Herald wrote: Why haven’t rich countries done anything when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently vetoed nearly 300 opposition politicians, including some of the most popular ones, from running in Venezuela’s Nov. 23 regional elections. See: The Miami Herald, "The Oppenheimer Report" p. 10A (Dec. 18, 2008).
According to the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington the majority of the 260 persons disqualified from public office "are linked to the coalition of political groups that support the government." When observer, Michael Ray, of Miami, called Andres Oppenheimer of The Miami Herald to ask him what his source was for the statement that the "nearly 300" disqualified politicians were opposition members, Oppenheimer stated he did not know and referred Ray to some other reporter.
During the first two and one/half days in Caracas CNE officials and others provided information and training on the election process and mechanics to observers.
Guild observers also met with: Supreme Court Justice Fernando Ramon Vegas Torrealba (he attended the NLG Convention in Austin); an Afro-Caribbean member of Congress; Immacula Nervil, the head of a Haitian refugee assistance group; Teodoro Petkoff, a Chavez critic and a minister in the former government of
Venezuela as well as a former guerilla and current editor of the newspaper, Tal Cual, and the head of a womens’ human rights group. Some of us visited a neighborhood community center in a barrio with a former priest from the United States, Charles
Hardy, as our guide. One of the highlights of our trip was a wonderful concert by the Bolivarian Youth Symphony.4
On Saturday, November 22, 2008, we flew to different parts of the country to participate as election observers, or "accompaniers". Larry Hildes and Karen Weill went to Anzoategui State. Kerry Mc Lean went to Tachira. Michael Ray went to Bolivar. Each of us had quite different experiences and impressions of the Election Process and events. Therefore the following accounts are divided into separate sections.
On November 23, 2008, Venezuela held regional elections to elect governors, mayors and members of state legislative councils. These regional elections are held every four years and candidates elected will serve from 2008 to 2012. Elections are held on Sundays, which provides more persons the chance to vote. The National Lawyers Guild sent four members to Venezuela as part of a group of over 130 international election observers, who were invited by the National Electoral Council (CNE) : Karen Weill and Larry Hildes of Bellingham, Washington; Kerry McLean of New York City and Michael Ray of Miami, Florida. Other observers came from various countries throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. This Guild delegation followed a December, 2007 Guild delegation of 3 observers from the Massachusetts Chapter of the Guild who observed the election on the referendum on constitutional reforms in Venezuela, when voters narrowly rejected a package that would have ended presidential term limits.
Before we begin our report on our assignment to Anzoategui, we would like to add some additional analysis to the general statements made by Michael, above:
Although this election would be considered the equivalent of the U.S.’s "off" year election, between president elections, the election became important for several reasons. The party of Hugo Chavez was coming off an election in 2007 that it had lost, the first loss in several years. The 2007 election consisted of a set of 69 proposed changes to the Venezuelan constitution, one of which would have allowed President Chavez (as well as all politicians) to serve more than two terms. Of course, that was the reform that the opposition focused on, and its loss was seen as a warning knell that Chavez’s government was losing support, if not about to fall.
And President Chavez had recently, just before the 2007 election, attempted to consolidate his base by consolidating several parties into one, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). The second-in-command for PSUV laid some of the blame for the loss of the constitutional reformation in 2007 on the fact that it was such a new party, with the problems attendant with every group that is just beginning. However, he and others, including some of the opposition, placed the majority of the blame on the fact that 69 proposed reforms were attempted at once, resulting in confusion among the voters. It is also worth noting that the U.S. poured millions of dollars into defeating the referendum through the National Endowment for Democracy.
So the November 2008 election was seen as important to bring up Chavez’s fortunes again, and to prove that he maintained support across the country through his party.
The goal of 50% representation was fascinating and illuminating. The U.S. has often stated, vaguely, that more women should be encouraged to run for office. But neither of the major parties, nor any of the independents, have stated publicly or made it part of the party platform, to maintain a goal of any percentage of representation among the candidates.
The National Election Council (CNE) had set a goal of 50% representation of women in elections already back in 1998, according to the CNE’s President, Tibesay Lucena. In addition to making this a goal 10 years ago, President Lucena also has taken pains to publicly state that she is a feminist. This is in a country where more than 90% of the people are Catholic; abortion is still illegal; single women with children find it difficult to obtain jobs; and machismo still rules in many areas. But Venezuela has taken many steps to begin improving women’s status, including passage of Article 88 of the Constitution which guarantees equality between men and women in economic status and at work and several social missions aimed at improving women’s educational and economic status. Another important step has been the public declaration by President Chavez himself that he is a feminist. And only this past year, in 2008, he upgraded the National Institute for Women to a Ministry of Women, and Ms. Weill had the opportunity to meet with a Vice-Minister from that government agency. (A separate report on that meeting will be forthcoming as an addendum to this Report.)
An important backdrop to this is the fact that the CNE is a separate branch of government, one of five branches. CNE became a branch of government in 1998, shortly before President Chavez’s election, as one of the many steps taken to show the independence and reliability of the elections. Before 1998, which was also the year that Chavez won his first victory, the government was run by two corrupt parties who swapped votes, stuffed ballot boxes and traded off alternatively who was going to win the top positions in the national government. President Chavez won his first election primarily based on the widespread dissatisfaction with these two parties, who were eventually banned from participating in electoral politics by the CNE for their corruption.
President Chavez then called for a new constitution, which was approved in 1999, that required all politicians in office to run for office again, including the president. He then won the presidency again in 2000, this time with an even higher margin. By the time he won the presidency for the third time, when he ran for his second term that would begin in 2006, CNE had instituted several reforms, including inviting international observers to make reports such as this one, in their strong efforts to ensure fair, transparent and accountable elections. The CNE has consistently received high marks from the U.N., and private, not-for-profit organizations such as the Carter Center.
Even the opposition leader whom we met with, Teodoro Petkoff, publisher of Tal Cual and a former official in the Caldera government that preceded President Chavez’s election. (Mr. Petkoff served as Minister of the Central Office of Coordination and Planning (Cordiplan), directing the government's economic policies. From Cordiplan, Mr. Petkoff managed the Venezuela Agenda, a neo-liberal government program designed to dismantle much of the government and most social programs to satisfy the IMF and World Bank.) While Mr. Petkoff was vocal in his personal dislike of President Chavez, he readily conceded that CNE was trustworthy and that he would trust the results of the election.
As discussed in Kerri McLean’s section of this report, prior to the election, we met with a member of the National Assembly who was the head of the Afro- Venezuelan Forum, Diputado Modesto Ruiz Espinoza, and Justice Fernando Ramon Vegas Torrealba of the Electoral Division of the Venezuelan Supreme Court. As a counterweight to Mr. Petkoff, we attended a general meeting with Alberto Mueller Rojas, the Executive Vice-President of Chavez’s coalition, the Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV) who was extremely informative. Ms. Weill also met with Juana Garcia, a Vice-Minister in the new Ministry of Women. Authors’ note (Larry and Karen):
As a postscript, we learned after we returned to the U.S., through the research and writing of Eva Gollinger, a Venezuelan-American attorney who now lives in Caracas and the author of the Chavez Code, that the U.S. pumped more than $5 million in aid to the opposition in three of the states they then won -- Zulia, Tachira, and Miranda -- through the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. This represents an important influence of internal politics, as the governorship of Tachira swung to the opposition in this election. It is informative to look at the geography of Venezuela when considering Ms. Gollinger’s report. Zulia, the richest oil state in Venezuela, and Tachira, form the entire length of the border with Colombia. Ms. Gollinger also reported death squads that swept in from Colombia to harass and murder PSUV members in those states after the election; both governors also banned activists who were working with the social missions that President Chavez has begun. To date, Venezuelan has spent no money attempting to influence U.S. elections.
Separate Reports from Voting Sites
I arrived in Caracas, Venezuela on November 19, 2008. I was incredibly excited at the prospect of observing the electoral process in Venezuela, because I had read glowing reviews written by groups such as the NAACP that had observed elections in recent years.
There were over 100 delegates acting as official observers of the state and municipal elections. There were many observers from Latin America and Europe, and a smaller number of observers from the United States and two countries in Africa. The day after I arrived the observers sat through lectures and workshops that gave an indepth look at the electoral process in Venezuela. The workshops highlighted the improvements to the electoral process after Chavez was elected president. From the workshops it was apparent that Venezuela’s process is rather impressive. Throughout the country –even in rural areas- electronic voting machines are used and all along the way there are mechanisms in place to protect accuracy. It is a system that ensures that elections are fair and accessible.
The following day, a Friday, we visited voting centers in Caracas in order to have a visual sense of the setup before doing our observing on Sunday. I noted that when people first arrive at the voting center, their identities could be verified by an electronic fingerprint machine. Alternatively, if for some reason their fingerprint was not located by the machine, they could use photo identification. The observers were divided into small groups and sent to different parts of the country to monitor the elections. Four of us went to the state of Táchira, which is in the Andes Mountains. The other three people in my group were a politician from Argentina (who is a lawyer), a political activist from Poland (who is a lawyer) and a journalist from Spain. When we got to Táchira, people from the electoral commission were there to meet us and drive us to the hotel where we would stay. The ride to the hotel took almost an hour, and along the way I fell asleep. I woke at one point and looked out of the jeep window to see what appeared to be members of the Venezuelan military. I knew that the military was providing security at voting centers, so I figured that the guards I saw were headed somewhere. I fell asleep again, and woke again. I still saw the military. I decided to stay awake for the remainder of the drive, and I saw that the military was escorting my vehicle to the hotel. I later learned that they were members of the National Guard. There were three male guards and one female guard, and they were quite friendly. They escorted us everywhere for the three days that we were in Táchira. Two people from the Electoral Commission and a paramedic also accompanied us.
Sunday, November 23 was Election Day. We visited eight voting centers in Táchira. The voter turnout was tremendous. In a few of the centers that we visited they were unprepared for the number of voters that showed up, so there were long lines. However, in most voting centers chairs were provided for people waiting. Also, at every center throughout the country there were paramedics present in case anyone became ill.
Some people at the voting centers with long lines complained about waiting for an hour or more, but others said that they didn't mind. It should be noted that none of those that complained of long lines complained that the process itself was not transparent or was somehow compromised. I was told by someone from the Electoral Commission that the Commission will respond to the increased number of voters by increasing the number of machines in those centers that have thousands of voters, or possibly increasing the number of centers. Here in the United States we also experience very long lines on Election Day in some areas, though unfortunately I have never seen chairs or paramedics provided. In each room where there was a voting machine there were representatives of each political party. Each voter signed a book when they entered the room, a worker reviewed how to use the voting machine with them (which they already had information about because there was a great deal of public education prior to the election), the person voted, they saw their votes reflected on the voting machine screen, the vote was printed, the voter took the slip of paper and deposited it in a hole in an otherwise sealed box, the voter was fingerprinted and the voter left. The observers were able to speak with the workers and party representatives at all times, and we took advantage of that. Every worker and party representative that I spoke to said that the process was fair and accessible, and that there was no manipulation of the process.
The observers wore vests that identified us as international observers. Sometimes voters applauded when they saw us, and they were very kind. I spoke to people lined up to vote, or who had just voted. The voters had very positive comments about the fairness and transparency of the electoral process.
At one point a man approached the observers. He claimed that some students were being prevented from voting at a few voting centers because they were supporters of an opposition party. Apparently the students were told that they could not enter voting centers because of the t-shirts that they wore. When asked which centers he became vague. A man passing by mouthed something, which I didn't understand at first. I stopped him to find out what he had said, and he said that the guy speaking with us was a candidate on the ballot from an opposition party. When we asked the man who had complained about the students not voting if he was an opposition party candidate, he admitted that he was. We later met the election coordinator for the region, and he said that he had spoken with the candidate. He explained that there is a law that people cannot wear clothing promoting any party on Election Day, and that people are aware of that. Some people wearing shirts for a political party had not been allowed to enter the voting centers wearing them. We have similar laws in some states in the US.
There was press present at several of the voting centers I visited. I was interviewed about four times by television news crews, and other observers were interviewed as well.
At the end of the day the observers went to a voting center to observe the counting of the votes from one of the boxes. There were people present from every political party. The box was cut open and each slip of paper was retrieved individually and tallied on a board. The votes from the box had to match the votes tallied by the corresponding voting machine. Also, the number of votes had to be equal to the number of people that had signed the book to vote on the machine in that particular room.
I found the voting process to be very transparent and designed to protect accuracy. I have monitored elections in the United States and Cambodia, and Venezuela’s process surpasses what I have previously seen; it was quite sophisticated. The next day I read about the elections in a newspaper for Táchira. Candidates for the opposition had done well in Táchira, as had been expected. The front page of the newspaper Frontera, a publication in the Andes, proclaimed the dominance of "civismo" in Táchira on Election Day. The paper highlighted certain municipalities, praising the fact that the process was rapid, and that any issues with voting machines were addressed. The paper also noted the massive presence of election observers.
Meeting with Representatives of the Afro-Venezuelan Community in Caracas
While in Caracas some of the American observers met with representatives from the Afro-Venezuelan community. We met an Afro-Venezuelan member of the National Assembly. He is a strong supporter of Chavez. The member of the National Assembly said that before Chavez was elected his office had not even existed. He described Chavez as being very receptive to the issues that his office addresses, and being encouraging of Afro-descendant and indigenous people having pride in their heritage.
The other person we spoke with is Immacula Nervil, a migrant from Haiti. After moving to Venezuela she became an activist on behalf of the Haitian migrant community in the country. There are thousands of Haitian immigrants living in Venezuela. Ms. Nervil told us that since Chavez came to power, the people from her community no longer fear being deported and are being naturalized.
Karen Weill and Larry Hildes in Anzoategui
We were sent to Anzoategui, an important oil state on the Caribbean coast, northeast of Caracas, on Saturday, November 22, 2008. When we arrived in the airport of the state capitol of Barcelona, we were greeted by a huge banner in the gate area welcoming us to the "Revolutionary State of Anzoategui" with a picture of state governor and former political prisoner (and renowned poet) Tarek William Saab standing arm-in-arm with President Chavez. Having never been to the Revolutionary State of anywhere before, we were quite impressed.
Of the 130-plus delegates to the international observer group, eight were sent to Anzoategui, split into two groups of observers. The rest of our delegation was all native Spanish Speakers from Spain, Mexico, Argentina, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Bolivia. Despite language difficulties, we liked our fellow observers immensely and were impressed with their political experience and expertise. Our translator in Anzoategui could have been better, and we directed that issue to CNE.
As we entered the public part of the terminal, we were surrounded by a large number of press, print and television. They focused initially on the Spanish speakers, but eventually interviewed us as well, through a combination of English and translation. The stories of our delegation ran in three newspapers that we know of. We have copies of the articles, but never got a chance to see the television coverage. It was very clear that having international election observers was a very big deal in Anzoategui.
We also were interviewed by a radio reporter or talk show host, it was not clear which, while in Puerto Píritu, one of our stops during Election Day. As we were driving away from that town, our driver turned to this station, and our translator told us she heard the interview done with the third observer in our car, Ignacio Ruelas from Mexico, and one sentence from Larry’s interview.
We were provided with an extremely thick (probably over 500 pages) briefing book on the region. The book provided maps and details of how the elections would be run, much of which we had already received in two days of intense training while in Caracas on Thursday and Friday.
The delegation then had dinner with the regional director of CNE for Anzoategui, Edgar Mata. He had previously worked for CNE for a number of years in Caracas. He discussed many of the details of the improvements the Venezuelans have made in their elections. He was particularly proud of the electronic machines, which he stated have made the voting process in Anzoategui easier and much more accessible in the rural areas. The machines are extremely portable, being only the size of a large briefcase, and with the gradual increase in numbers of machines, Venezuela is well on its way to the stated goal of having of a polling station within one kilometer of the home of every Venezuelan.
The next morning. Election Day, on Sunday, November 23, 2008, we were out at 5:30 a.m. so that we could watch the first polls preparing for the morning opening by 7 a.m. We were not the only observers at each polling station. Each party is allowed to have one observer in every mesa, meaning that a mesa could have as many as nine to eleven observers (and each station has more than one mesa, depending on the number of machines that have been assigned to the station). In addition to the 17 party observers, there is an non-governmental organization called Eyes of the Election (Ojos de Electioniones) that also had scattered observers at random stations, as we were.
At the first station in downtown Barcelona we watched as the machines ran through extensive diagnostics, including a check to ensure that there were no votes already in the machine, which all poll workers and the parties’ observers witnessed. One of the machines did have some problems, and voters were waiting in line for their mesa to open until well approximately 9 a.m. However, the first person in line, who we spoke to, indicated she was impatient, but that it was important to vote and she would wait. As she was an older person, the poll workers had given her a chair to sit in. There were other problems at a few of the other machines, but we did not witness anyone become so impatient with their wait that they chose not to vote. (It might have helped that this was a Sunday, a non-work day for the majority of voters. It is typical in Latin America to have voting held on a Sunday.)
Later in the morning, we were taken to the headquarters of the state CNE. The director told us gave us a copy of a report showing that all areas but one were showing 93% to 100% of all the machines were working by 8:49 a.m. In that one region, they were reporting 83% working machines. (Only three regions had less 95%. We have attached the report that Regional Director Mata gave us.) In those places where the workers could not get the machine to work, the procedure was to try for a specified time, then call for back-up from the headquarters; if the machine still could not be fixed (also within an allotted time), then the mesa was to resort to paper ballots. We were told by the end of the day, the entire state was reporting over a 98% rate of functioning machines.
As was true of the rest of the day, we saw no attempts to deny anyone the right to vote; in fact, great pains were taken to ensure that electors understood the process and were able to vote. At the mesa where we watched the opening process, the first voter was a soldier who clearly was having great difficulty with the ballot. They carefully explained it to him and allowed him to try a second time. When he triumphantly completed his voting and waved the paper receipt, everyone in the polling station cheered.
(One of the interesting side notes that we learned in our day is that the military was not allowed to vote before President Chavez came into power. Apparently, it used to be, when you entered the military, you gave up your right to vote, a decision which has since been rescinded.)
All elections, at every level, are now held electronically, but with an important security feature: a paper trail. As each voter goes behind the screen to cast her or his ballots, the president of the mesa pushes a button that releases the electronic machine to make it available for the vote. After the vote is cast, the voter then receives a paper ballot from the machine, showing how the vote was tallied. If he or she disagrees with the tally on the paper ballot, they may return to the machine to re-cast their vote. Once the voter tells the president that they are "clear" (finished) that the button is pushed to end the vote, and re-set the machine for the next voter.
The paper ballot is then placed into a secured box.
In order to ensure that the votes are being counted accurately, 55% of the boxes are chosen randomly to be opened at the end of the day and tallied to make sure that the numbers match those of the machine used in that station. Mathematically, CNE would only need to randomly choose between 3 to 10 percent of the ballot boxes in order to show whether or not fraud had occurred. However, they have chosen to do this excessively high number to increase voter confidence in the process. One of the issues that we had with the voting procedure is that every voter must cast his or her ballot in 3 minutes. If the voter is not able to complete their vote in that time, they are given a second try, as outlined above with the first voter we witnessed, an additional 3 minutes. However, the voter is only allowed two attempts. We found the ballot to be fairly confusing; however, it is a very different system, closer to a parliamentary procedure, with proportional representation thrown in, something we in the U.S. have barely begun to look at. The Anzoategui CNE staff were very proud of the numerous classes and workshops that had been offered around the state (as well as around the country, according to the CNE staff in Caracas) during the three months leading up to the election, to demonstrate how the ballots worked. In addition to the classes, videos were shown on the two government television stations and spot messages on the radio stations, urging voters to vote, and demonstrating how to use the ballot machines.
Given the combination of the confusing ballot and short time, we specifically watched to see if there were any voters who had problems with those two constraints coming together. We described above the soldier who was the first voter at the mesa where we went to observe the opening procedure. He had taken the maximum time allowed. We then watched the next five people in line go through their votes in the same amount of time that the soldier had taken with his one vote (Karen timed this, the next five people took less than five minutes total, about 30 to 45 seconds each). It was clear throughout the day that those who were prepared would fly through the process in much less than the three minutes given.
We did talk to the CNE staff assigned to accompany us about this problem—what if someone had not come to any of the many classes offered in how to use the machines? The staff clearly felt that part of the right to vote included the responsibility of researching the candidates -- and step-by-step procedure of how to vote – so that you were prepared to make the process flow smoothly for all. We saw this shown several times at the various mesas we visited, where one person would take the entire time allotted, and then the next few voters would cast their votes in less than a minute each.
But it was also clear from the attitude of the poll workers that they had put some thought into this issue as well. At several of the polling stations, we found the president of the mesa would assist whoever was behind the screen if they were asked to do so. This is against the rules. Each voter is supposed to be asked, either by the president of the mesa or another poll worker, whether they understand the ballot, before the president begins the process (by asking if they are ready and then pushing the button). If they say no or show hesitation, they are suppose to be taken out of the room where the mesa is, into the hallway where a blow up of the ballot is hung, and someone is suppose to describe the ballot to them and go over the process. However, perhaps because of an unwillingness to show themselves ignorant, there were voters who would get behind the screen and then clearly be confused or unable to finish the vote for some other reason in the three minutes given. And it was also clear that the poll workers (usually the president) were going out of their way to ensure that voters could vote and understood the process as they were doing so, even if they weren’t prepared for the machines.
We found a mesa president who had found a solution to this that we thought then took care of other objections brought up by the CNE staff to assistance during the voting. In a more rural area, one of the presidents of a mesa was actually breaking the process down, and walking voters through each step. The ballots were on three large electronic tablets, approximately 12 X 17 inches. After voting in the races on the ballots, you then go to the computer-like screen to show you are finished and ask for the printed copy of your ballot.
In this mesa, the president had another poll worker who was assigned to press the button to allow voting to begin. However, he made sure he was the one who controlled when the button was pressed by telling the second poll worker, "now" for both the start and stop. Standing in front of the screen (not behind it), the president would ask each voter, "Are you ready to vote?" He would then indicate the button should be pressed to begin the process. He would wait until the voter had finished with the first tablet, and looked up, and would ask, "Have you voted for the governor? Good." Then he would take a step to his left, wave the voter to step with him (but still behind the screen) and stand in front of the next tablet, and say, "Now vote for the legislature" (or whatever race was on the next tablet). Then when the voter looked up over the screen, he would say, "Have you voted for the legislature? Good." Then he would step to his left, the voter would mirror that movement and step to her or his right, and they would walk through this again for the third tablet and third race.
All of this was said loud enough that everyone in the mesa (a single room) could hear him, including the poll observers from each party and the neutral observers. It was clear that he was not coaching any voter on the actual ballot cast, simply on the procedure. It was also interesting, the voters who we watched go through this procedure stayed within the three-minute time allotment given to vote. We would recommend this procedure be adopted nationally for those voters who had not made it to one of the classes given prior to the election or are otherwise having a problem. It was very clear that the electronic machines intimidated many people, particularly in the smaller towns we visited and the rural area which was our final stop, San Juan de Capistrano, which consisted of a wide spot in the road with a school and municipal building and one small grocery store. We assumed and checked this with the CNE staff, that many of these people, not just in San Juan de Capistrano, but also in the small towns, did not have much if any exposure to computers, which might make them nervous with the electronic machines.
We were informed of a separate problem through one of the neutral observers associated with the organization, Eyes of the Election. She told us that the voters were having problems distinguishing between two of the three buttons they had to press on the last machine. After the voter has cast his or her ballots on the tablets, they must then turn to a machine that looks like a computer screen, and indicate if they 1) wish to make a change to any specific vote, 2) if this is their final vote, and then 3) ask the machine to print out the paper ballot. Two of the three buttons had the same word on it ("votar") and she said this was causing confusion for some of the voters. It was also not clear to us if the classes provided before the election went over the information on the computer screen, or just focused on the ballots which were on the tablets laying flat on the tables, and looked very different than the final computer-like screen. Again, we would like to emphasize that the majority of the voters who we observed seemed to have no problems with voting, knew who the candidates were they wanted to vote for, knew how to press the buttons on the ballot to chose between individual candidates and party lists (that lead to proportional representation), and knew how to use the final computer that spit out the paper ballot.
There were long waits at some of the polling stations, and short waits at others. Where the polling station manager had made an effort to organize people into lines outside of the station that correlated with the mesas inside the polling station, the lines seemed to be shorter. One manager had his lines divided and then allowed people into the lobby of the building, where chairs had been set up, according to how quickly each mesa was going. It seemed to cut down on waiting times, where that station reported (from voters chosen randomly in the lobby) only 10 to 20 minutes of waiting, as compared to a different station, where random voters reported up to two hours outside the station, and then were clearly looking at waiting at least that long inside for their particular mesa. But again, we had no reports of anyone being disgusted enough with the wait that they chose not to vote, although several people approached in line expressed impatience.
(One side story: One man we approached in the line at the best-organized polling station (in Puerto Piritu) clearly was somewhat challenging. Before he answered the question posed by our translator, he responded with a question of his own, asking where we were from. We said we were from the U.S. He replied, "What are you doing here? Why do you think the U.S. has better voting procedures than we do here in Venezuela?" We replied, "We don’t. We agree with you that the procedures in the U.S. aren’t very good, and we are hoping to take lessons back to the U.S." Our response clearly took the wind out of his sails, and he immediately warmed up to us. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to stay and talk to him further, as our CNE staff was desperately trying to keep to their schedule.
Because of the use of machines, and because of our experiences in Florida in 2004, we asked specific questions regarding the security of the process. In those areas where it is available (roughly 98% of all polling stations), the voting tallies are turned in through a modem/fixed telephone wire (i.e., land line); where that is not possible, the tallies are sent in via satellite or mobile telephone transmissions. We had been given extensive information on the security protocols in the workshops provided in Caracas, on the multiple layers of encrypted security and CNE’s use of what is known as the onion-layer structure, something we have been informed by computer experts in the U.S. is considered one of the more sophisticated ones available.
Each voter must show their fingerprint twice, once on an electronic scanner, which compares their fingerprint to the one on file in the database, before voting (which as Kerry pointed out, can be replaced with identification if there is a problem with a match); and a second time, when they give their fingerprint (with ink on paper) before leaving the polling station, another way to provide an audit afterwards. In addition, each voter must dip their pinkie finger into a well of indelible ink, that is not harmful, but does last two days to a week before washing off. This procedure was created specifically to prevent a voter from casting more than one vote by going to various polling stations, a common practice in the past. At our training in Caracas, CNE Director Lucena had indicated that the polls would remain open until all voters in line had voted, no matter how long that might be after the polls were supposed to close. This was in stark contrast with our experience in Florida in 2004, where voters were told that the polls had closed and they would not be allowed to vote, despite having already waited in line from anywhere from two to four hours (longer in other regions of Florida, according to reports we read the next day). As in the U.S., CNE has learned its lesson, and polls did remain open, as was our experience at the last polling station, where two voters who hadn’t been in line were waved in at 5:10 p.m., as the last of the voters who had arrived before the closing time of 4 p.m. were still finishing up. And CNE did not release the results of the elections until after ALL the polls had closed and all of the audits had been completed, forcing the impatient media to wait until the early hours of the next morning. We applaud their exactitude.
In general the Venezuelan attitude, throughout the region where we observed as well in Caracas was, if we can go out of our way and make the process more transparent and inclusive, why wouldn’t we?
Our conclusions are that the Anzoategui elections were incredibly fair. While there were some mistakes made that were against the rules, those that we found were invariably mistakes of enthusiasm and attempts to ensure voting, not attempts to prevent voting. We had a specific recommendation on the issue of voters who were uncomfortable or untutored on the procedures, having found the one president’s method to be extremely efficient and effective, as described above; and two issues that we recommend CNE look at more closely, the issue of the buttons that said essentially the same thing ("votar") and giving each voter more time. While this may cause some problems with how long polling stations are open (if needed, we would recommend more time), we assume that as more and more voters become more familiar with the mechanics, this issue will diminish if not disappear. As we indicated above, most voters took well less than their allotted first three minutes. Overall, we found the process to be extremely transparent, and even opposition (as evidenced by our meeting with Mr. Petkoff and newspaper articles that we read or had translated for us in Caracas) conceded that the elections were held fairly. We highly concur with Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who stated in hearings held in the U.S. Senate in 2006, that perhaps the U.S. should look at how Venezuela is able to provide a paper trail. We believe the U.S. has something to learn from Venezuela. We want to thank CNE for affording us this opportunity to both learn from them, and to watch a democracy continue to grow in its abilities to throw off the corrupt practices of the past.
Michael Ray in Bolivar
I flew to the city of Puerto Ordaz in Bolivar State on Saturday morning with two other observers, a writer from France, who used to live in Venezuela; and an executive of a solar energy company from Honduras; with a translator provided by the CNE. We were supposed to be accompanied by five other observers. The translator explained that 4 of them never showed up in Venezuela, and that the 5th preferred to observe in Caracas. We were met at the Puerto Ordaz airport by two CNE workers who drove us to our hotel. When we arrived at our hotel lobby there were two official-looking men dressed in plain clothes, sitting on a sofa in front of us. They said nothing and just stared at us. When we got up to go across the parking lot to the restaurant these two men followed us and sat at a table next to us. We asked the CNE workers if they knew who the men were. "Our security" we were told. We asked them to join us. We found out that they were DIM agents (like FBI), assigned to guard us and they did not let us out of their sight the next two days. We all became good friends and enjoyed each others’ company. It turns out both agents worked in the Environmental prosecution Division and helped to set up stings for persons trying to bribe government officials in order to rape the environment. Our first day together 1A Ciudad Bolivar newspaper reported that workers were missing at 80% of the mesas in Bolivar State. This was our experience as well. Voting center workers are selected at random by voters’ lists. We were told that workers who do not show up can be fined. When we asked if the workers knew of anyone actually being fined, no one did. Some laughed at the question. they took us to an incredibly beautiful national park and taught us many things about the plants and animals we saw.
Each voting station in Bolivar had from 3 to 21 mesas (tables). Each mesa had approximately 500 - 550 people who were registered to vote at that mesa. Each mesa also had one voting machine and a President who was in charge of the mesa. On Sunday, November 23, (Election Day) we left our hotel and drove to our first polling place at 6:30 A.M. Altogether, we visited 11 polling places and a total of about 40 mesas. In the 11 polling places we visited there were a total of 92 mesas. Most of the polling places we visited were schools. Unlike in the U.S. the water fountains all worked there.
All the presidents of the mesas as well as workers we met seemed to be welltrained in the voting process and use of the machines.
We encountered problems of some sort or other at roughly 80 % of the mesas. Some of the problems we encountered were as follows:
- Polling stations opening late ( 1 - 2 hours) because workers failed to show up on time or at all and others had to be found to take their places.1
- Long lines caused by delays in openings of polling places and due to 2 At some polling places voters were irate and refused to leave when told the machine recorded their votes correctly in spite of the paper receipt variances. Once mesa closed for over two hours due to this problem while irate voters argued with soldiers with rifles.
While riding the airplane back to Caracas four of us laughed when we read in the newspaper how even President Chavez’ father and some friends reportedly received paper receipts that did not reflect their actual votes. 3At one mesa 3 different machines broke down. Finally hand-ballots were cast. The mesa stayed open late and everyone in line got to vote. 4The voting machines used in Venezuela are manufactured by Venezuela’s Smartmatic, which bought Sequoia, which has manufactured voting machines in malfunctioning voting machines.
- Voters being made to wait in long lines in the hot sun and/or rain, when there were spaces inside buildings or in covered hallways where voters could have been permitted to wait to vote.
- Complaints of paper receipts not reflecting the way persons had actually voted.2 - Complaints of blank paper receipts.
- Other complaints of malfunctioning machines, e.g.: - the button to vote for governor would not work on one machine.
- a machine that would not print any receipts at all.
- machines that did not work at all.3 - machines that worked on Friday but not on Sunday (election day).
- machines that did not work on Friday but worked on Sunday.4 the United States for over 100 years.. I have read that many of these same machines are used in voting in places like Florida in the United States. 5We heard from monitors and/or mesa presidents that when calls were made to CNE headquarters concerning malfunctioning machines, CNE headquarters responded that the machines were fine or that the mesa president would have to prove the machines did not work properly before CNE would come out to replace the machine.
- Lack of helpful response by CNE headquarters to complaints by polling station monitors or mesa presidents that machines were not working.5
- Complaints from party observers that they were not allowed entry into the mesas either because they showed up late and/or because there already was one observer there from their party.
- Disabled person having to wait lengthy period of time to vote.
- Voting center workers looking over the shoulder of voters while they voted. At another mesa a voter was angry because she was told that she could not vote unless she voted for at least seven candidates and no fewer, for legislative council. That night we shared our last meal at the hotel with the DIM agents. A local newspaper reporter and photographer showed up at the restaurant and interviewed me for a story reported two days later in the newspaper.
The next morning we were dropped off at the airport. The DIM agents accompanied us until we entered the concourse. One of them then put his cellular phone to his ear and said jokingly, "President Chavez, everything is ok. The gringo 6 Four requests for a copy of our report from Mr. Gonzalez have gone unanswered. [referring to me] is getting on the plane."
Back in Caracas Monday afternoon observers from the United States all met to collaborate on a joint report to be presented that evening to the CNE on behalf of the NLG and all other observers from the United States. We shared our observations with each other. U.S. observers comments were being typed on a computer by an observer from California, Anthony Gonzalez.
No one else seemed to have experienced the problems that my group encountered in Bolivar, so instead of incorporating my comments into the preparation of the joint report to be presented to the CNE and the press at a conference later that night, it was decided that my answers to the CNE post-election questionnaire would be attached to the report. Mr. Gonzalez presented an oral summary of our report to the CNE and the press and stated something to the effect of how wonderful the U.S. observers had found the process to be and how they had encountered almost no problems in the voting process. Upon hearing this misrepresentation I complained to Mr. Gonzalez that he not reported my observations accurately. Another lawyer from California told me I should not be upset because I should realize that the purpose of the press conference was just for propaganda.6
Others have expressed concern that if I report the things I observed they will appear too "negative" and may cause problems or will not be printed by the Venezuelan Information Office. However, the Venezuelan Government asked us to report what we observed. That is what I promised to do. I would hope the Venezuelan Government finds our observations helpful and that they would benefit from our observations. Was the voting process fair? Were all the votes counted? Was there fraud? Were the machines tampered with? Were the votes tampered with before the results were announced? How does the Venezuela system compare to ours in the U.S.?
You be the judge.
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