Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Questions hound purchase of new voting machines in Venezuela


When 48,000 voting machines burned in a mysterious fire that razed the warehouses of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) earlier this year, rumors flew thick and fast that it had something to do with the December parliamentary elections. The timing of the fire seemed suspicious to many as it left the CNE with very little wiggle room to select, purchase, and implement a new voting system.

Yet, as if on cue, news that the CNE acquired 15,000 new China-made machines have recently surfaced even as the circumstances around the fire is still unknown.

Alarmingly, the purchase seems to be clouded with questions. Chief of which is the criteria used to arrive at the decision to purchase the technology from an Argentine company named Exclé. There are no records of the company ever manufacturing a voting machine, not even in Argentina. Many have also observed the lack of transparency on the cost of the machines and the software they will use.

In the center of the controversy is the CNE, where shadiness seems to have been reigning supreme. The lack of transparency in crucial decisions made at the helm of the CNE prompted Director Rafael Simón Jiménez to resign only two months after being sworn in. Among the many irregularities he exposed as he exited the post was the direct purchase of the machines from ExCle.

Recently, the popular Venezuelan news portal Efecto Cocuyo ran an exposé on ExClé’s numerous involvement with the government of Nicolas Maduro Moros which include providing tech support for Bank of Venezuela and the Venezuelan cryptocurrency "Petro.” The company also provides biometric technology for Carnet de la Patria, or the homeland card.

These dealings led former Governor Carlos Tablante to raise in a Twitter thread the issue of conflict of interest. How indeed can a company with numerous lucrative dealings with a government be expected to count votes fairly?

The director of the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory (OEV), Carlos Medina, also expressed concern about the new purchase of voting machines claiming it "has not been very transparent". For years, OEV had been a staunch advocate of election automation. Yet concerns about the opaqueness surrounding the new technology have made the group question the credibility and legitimacy of future elections.

In 2017, automated voting company Smartmatic broke relations with the CNE after denouncing that the poll body had published results different from those counted by its system. Hastily, Exclé took over to organize the 2018 presidential elections, which was roundly condemned as illegitimate by the Lima Group, the Organization of American States, and the international community at large.

To make sure that everyone knows that it had severed any and all relationship with the CNE since August 2, 2017, Smartmatic issued a statement underscoring its public break with Venezuelan poll body. The statement also said explicitly stated that the break meant that CNE cannot anymore use the company’s software, and that the software to be used in the 2020 election with new machines purchased from another supplier is not theirs. Time is running out for Venezuela. As doubts grow, the hope of having credible elections to quell its roiling political environment dims.