Thursday, December 21, 2017

When elections in Venezuela stopped being trustworthy

On August 2nd, 2017, Smartmatic, the company in charge of election automation in Venezuela, denounced that the nations National Electoral Council (CNE, by its acronym in Spanish) gave different results than those shown by the system. Since then, there have been two more elections and a third one is scheduled, where the nations president, 2,436 councilors and 233 members of regional legislative councils are to be elected.  
During the elections for the National Constituent Assembly on July 30th, 2017, the president of the CNE received a voter turnout figure, and simply announced another.  Simple as that. That is how the Venezuelan government manipulated election results.  The software in the machines was not hacked, and neither were the transmission process or the counting.  The tallying system gave a number, the government announced theirs.  The opposition had decided to abstain from these elections, so there were no witnesses in the tallying centres.
Venezuelan elections have been under a microscope for years. Both government and opposition had won and lost using the same voting system, and there had never been a physical, printed voting record that failed to match the electronic ones published on the electoral bodys website.  The accusations by losing candidates never prospered.  Before, audits prior to the voting always showed the system did what it was supposed to, and audits following the voting confirmed the results to be exact. 
Everything changed in the October 2017 Regional Elections and the Municipal Elections later that same year.  During the former, 11 printed voting records failed to match the digital records published online by the CNE.  These 11 records were manually entered into the tallying system. When a voting machine cannot transmit due to technical or connectivity issues, the voting records are entered manually into the system.  Then, what does it mean when it is the manually loaded records that do not match? It means that tampering the automated system is impossible, and that every vote entered is counted exactly as it was cast. In the Municipal Elections, some states had more votes than voters, with totals that adding up to more than 100% of the votes.
For these upcoming Presidential Elections in May 2018, there was an Agreement over Electoral Guaranteessigned by representatives of a few political parties and the National Electoral Council.

This agreement contemplates 11 alleged electoral guarantees. However, most of these are elements already present in the Venezuelan law governing elections.  There are two of them regarding the voting process: one, to undo the relocation of polling centres that took place in 2017, and two, to carry out all the technical audits that had been taking place until the Parliamentary Elections. 
As of today, having audits does not guarantee that results will not be tampered with, as it happened in Bolivar state, or that candidates will be allowed to have witnesses in the tallying rooms at the CNE to make sure the results announced match the records in the system. 
In the 2012 and 2015 elections, the CNE carried out between 12 and 15 audits in a period of 55 days.  For the elections this May, the CNE hopes to perform 14 audits (an additional two) in a mere 31 days.
The absence of Smartmatic as a technology provider, the accusations of tampering of the vote turnout for the National Consitutent Assembly, and the manual alteration of the results in Bolivar state cast a shadow over the performance of the automated voting system. This, on a much different level than before, where the main issue were the unfair advantages the government gave itself, not electronic fraud.