The Constitution provides for a referendum when 20% of the registered voters eligible to vote for an official have signed a petition calling for such a referendum, after the halfway point in the official’s term.

On June 8, the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced that the opposition had submitted 2.54 million valid signatures to demand the recall, surpassing the 2.43 million signatures required by the Constitution [1]

Requirements for Recall

According to Article 72 [2] of the Constitution, in order for the President to be recalled, an equal or greater number of voters must vote for the recall as voted for the President in the last election. This means that 3,757,773 people need to vote yes on the recall, in order for a new election to be held. [3].

To be successful, the recall must also generate a majority of "yes" votes, in favor of recalling the president. [4]

Commitment to Democracy

President Chávez has repeatedly committed to abiding by the results of the referendum, no matter the results. Unfortunately, the opposition has not made a similar commitment to respect the outcome of the referendum.

If the Recall is Successful, can President Chávez run again? The Supreme Court ruled this month that if Chávez were removed in the referendum, he could run again in the next regularly scheduled elections in 2006. [5] The court did not clarify whether Chávez could run in elections that would immediately follow a recall. The President of the Supreme Court, Ivan Rincon, stated recently since neither the Constitution nor Venezuelan law prevents the President from running again, there is no reason why he could not do so. Rincon said that the Supreme Court would clarify the issue. [6]

A Free and Fair Election

International Independent Observers

The CNE has invited representatives from more than 45 international organizations to monitor the recall referendum, including the Carter Center and the Organization of American States. [7] The Carter Center has announced that former President Carter will arrive in Venezuela on August 11 to head the Center’s observer delegation. [8]

During a press conference on July 15th, Jennifer McCoy, the Carter Center’s Americas director, said that, “we have an understanding between ourselves and the CNE about the regulations, which are compatible with our plans and our work methods.” [9]

In addition, a Swedish media watch group that is part of the Carter Center will monitor media coverage of the referendum in an effort to ensure more balanced coverage. The overwhelming majority of "independent" media in Venezuela are run by the opposition; these outlets have frequently violated electoral rules governing coverage during past electoral processes.

An Educated Population

A central goal of Venezuelan government policy is to include all Venezuelans in the political process. The government’s educational campaigns are key components of this policy. The government’s literacy campaign seeks to ensure that all Venezuelans know how to read and write. Last year, there were over 1.5 million illiterate people in Venezuela; the literacy program has contacted more than 1.2 million. Of these, more than 96% have been participating in classes to learn these basic skills. Since 1999 over three thousand new schools have been constructed or converted; over 850,000 children are attending these schools. [10]

Ensuring the Universal Right to Suffrage

On July 11 Venezuela’s election authorities announced that the number of registered voters in Venezuelan had reached 14 million people, [11] an increase of more than 2 million from August 2003. [12] The CNE President also announced that 300 new voting centers will be available in areas with a low accessibility of voting locations for the number of voters. An increase in the number of voting centers was deemed necessary because of their very uneven distribution, such that poor neighborhoods had in some cases one tenth the number of centers, per capita, as wealthy neighborhoods. [13]

The government has also attempted to ensure universal right to suffrage through providing ID cards, which are necessary to vote, to all citizens. Since May, almost 4.5 million Venezuelans have received the new ID card [14]

Preventing Electoral Fraud

In addition, the CNE has undergone a process of updating the Electoral Registry to prevent fraud. More than 375,000 signatures for the recall referendum were invalidated by the CNE in March [15], many of which were found to be deceased persons, children and foreigners. (This was in addition to a much larger number of disputed signatures that were sent to a "repair" process for a second chance at verification). Last June, the CNE was ordered by the Supreme Court to "purify" the National Electoral Registry by eliminating all deceased persons from the list. According to the CNE, over 157,659 names of deceased persons have been eliminated since the petition drive last September. [16]

Increasing Transparency and Accountability through Electronic Voting Machines Venezuela first used electronic voting machines in its 2000 elections. In February, the CNE awarded the companies Bizta, Smartmatic and CANTV a contract to provide touch screen voting machines to be used in the August 15 presidential referendum. These machines print a paper record that allows the process to be audited. Richard Brand and Alfonso Chardy, [17]

In contrast, many U.S. states will not have this capacity until 2006. [18] Twenty thousand machines will be set up the day of the recall referendum, and 1,000 replacement machines will also be available.

CANTV, Venezuela’s largest phone company, will provide phone lines to connect the system and Election Day technical support. CANTV would have been part of any voting system selected for the elections contract. Bizta and Smartmatic were not leading firms in the industry, a source of criticism by the opposition in Venezuela and some U.S. media. However, there were problems with the leading firms.

Election System & Software

In 1998, the CNE used an electronic voting system built by Omaha-based Election Systems & Software (ES&S) that used hand ballots that were read with an optical scanner. That technology was prone to error: the old machines failed to read between 5 and 15 percent of the ballots. Problems with ES&S contributed to the postponement of the 2000 elections. [19]

The software for ES&S machines is supplied by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a U.S. firm accused by the Venezuelan state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA) of violating the terms of its contract by participating in the 2003 opposition shutdown of the Venezuelan oil industry. SAIC filed for, and was recently awarded, compensation from the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation after PdVSA did not renew contracts with SAIC after the oil strike. PdVSA and Venezuelan government experts have evidence that INTESA (a joint venture of SAIC and PdVSA) personnel participated in sabotage operations against PdVSA during the strike. The stealing of software and passwords and remote-control electronic disruption of production, refinery and storage operations contributed to $14 billion dollars in losses at PDVSA and a record 28 percent drop in Venezuela’s GDP in the first quarter of 2003, as compared with a year earlier. [20]

The dispute is ongoing; it is understandable that Venezuela would not want to rely on SAIC as a supplier of software.

Diebold

The other leading supplier of electronic voting machines is Diebold. The company has been repeatedly criticized in the U.S. press for its ties to the Bush Administration. The company’s CEO Walden O’Dell made headlines when he wrote a fund-raising letter saying he was committed to seeing President Bush re-elected. [21]

There has also been controversy surrounding Diebold’s equipment. In Maryland’s primaries, its machines delayed vote counts; in Ohio, state legislators and officials have questioned the machines’ security; on April 30, California banned the machines in four counties after vote counts malfunctioned; a lawsuit has been filed in Washington to ban the company’s vote-counting software in several counties. [22]

Aviel Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University who co-wrote a detailed critique of leaked code used by Diebold, said that Diebold’s code "was done by amateurs. We found a lot of software flaws, incorrect use of cryptography, and bad software engineering.” [23]

Smartmatic and Bizta

On May 28, the Miami Herald reported that the Venezuelan government had a 28 percent ownership stake in Bizta. This relationship was sharply criticized by opposition figures. Government officials insisted that its interest in the ballot software company was coincidental. [24] On June 11, Bizta announced that it would buy back the government’s stake in the firm to avoid any appearance of impropriety, and that Omar Montilla, a former government official, was stepping down from Bizta’s Board of Directors [25]

Venezuela Election Security Measures Noted by Senator, Carter Center In a Senate hearing on Venezuela, Florida Senator Bill Nelson, a harsh critic of the Venezuelan government, noted that in guaranteeing paper receipts and an audit of those receipts, Venezuela was providing security to its electoral process beyond that now being provided by authorities in Florida: “...the State of Florida is not even doing that with a paper trail. So maybe Venezuela will teach Florida something.” [26] Jennifer McCoy, Director of the Americas Program of the Carter Center, said that her team received a full presentation from Venezuela’s electoral authorities on the SmartMatic machines that will be used, and that “we were very impressed with the presentation that we received, the security measures that were shown to us, and the functioning of the machine that we witnessed.” [27]

Successful Trial Run on Voting Machines On July 18, 2004, the CNE conducted a practice referendum on baseball teams to test new voting machines for the August recall election. National Elections Council director Jorge Rodriguez said the new touch-screen machines had been set up in 4,000 centers around the country to test the effectiveness of the new system.

Council President Francisco Carrasquero said during a visit to one of the centers that the system was working perfectly. [28] CNE Vice-President Zamora, usually considered sympathetic to the opposition, pronounced that the “functioning of the machines was perfect, we are satisfied with the transmission of data from the machines.” [29]

The Opposition Platform Financed by the U.S.

After being widely criticized for not having an electoral platform, opposition leaders unveiled a plan in early July outlining changes they would make in the event of a Chávez defeat. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the development of the opposition platform «Consenso Pais» was actually financed by US taxpayers, through the National Endowment for Democracy’s grant to the Center for International Private Enterprise and the Venezuelan Center for the Dissemination of Economic Information (CEDICE). [30]

Many of the organizations that participated in strategic planning for a national "consensus building process" have been linked to the failed coup of 2002, most notably Fedecamaras, (the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce) whose head, Pedro Carmona Estanga, was installed as the country’s coup President [31].

Significantly, the General Manager of CEDICE, Rocio Guijarro, [32] , signed the Carmona Decree, [33] which reads, in part: “We hereby designate Pedro Carmona Estanga...as President of the Republic of Venezuela...We hereby suspend the Members of the National Assembly and their substitutes. ... We hereby decree the reorganization of public power ... by dissolving the illegitimately occupied offices of the president and all other magistrates of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, as well as the Attorney General of the Republic, the Comptroller General of the Republic, the Ombudsman and the members of the National Electoral Council.” [34]

Recent Indicators

Most reliable polls indicate that the president’s popularity is on the rise, and that a majority of Venezuelans support his administration. An opposition-funded poll by Greenberg and Associates leaked in late June favored President Chávez 49% to 44%. [35] Polls conducted for the government by the U.S. firm Evans-McDonough in mid-July indicate the popularity of President Chávez increasing to 53%.

Some polling firms associated with the opposition that are frequently cited in U.S. news media (usually without noting their opposition bias) fail to meet the standards of objectivity which would be expected of reputablem polling firms in the United States. The polling firm Datanalysis is the only firm that has recently published numbers indicating anything other than a likely Presidential victory. Although often still quoted by the press as if it were independent, the agency was discredited when its president Jose Antonio Gil gave his assessment of the situation in Venezuela to the Los Angeles Times. Gil told the Times there was only one way out of Venezuela’s political crisis: President Chávez “has to be killed [36]

The Venezuela Information Office is dedicated to informing the American public about contemporary Venezuela, and receives its funding from the government of Venezuela. Further information is available from the FARA office of the Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

[1] .“Venezuelans Ponder Chavez Recall Outcome,” James Anderson; Associated Press, June 9, 2004.

[2] The Constitution can be viewed at http://www.georgetown.edu/pdba/Constitutions/Venezuela/ven1999.html. An unofficial English translation can be viewed at http://www.embavenez-us.org/constitution/intro.htm.

[3] “Elections of July 30, 2000, President of the Republic, National Total,” National Electoral Council, http://cne.gov.ve/estadisticas/e015.pdf.

[4] “Venezuela Pres Could Lose Recall If Abstentions Low - Poll,” Associated Press, June 23, 2004.

[5] Kevin Sullivan, “Embattled Chávez Taps Oil Cash In a Social, Political Experiment,” The Washington Post, June 18, 2004.

[6] “Court to Rule on a Run by Chávez After Recall,” Los Angeles Times, July 11, 2004.

[7] “Jimmy Carter to arrive in Venezuela on Aug. 11 to observe recall vote,” Associated Press, July 15, 2004.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Carter Center Satisfied with Venezuela’s Elections Observation Rules,” venezuelanalysis.com, Friday, Jul 16, 2004.

[10] “Observaciones que Formula la República Bolivariana de Venezuela al «Informe Sobre la Situación de los Derechos Humanos en Venezuela 2003»" Elaborado por la Comision Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela, March 2004.

[11] “Venezuela’s Chavez says he will win referendum with «crushing knockout»”, Agence France Presse, July 12, 2004.

[12] “Population of the Electoral Registry by Age (August 2003)”, National Electoral Council, http://www.cne.gov.ve/estadisticas/e045.pdf

[13] “Carter Center Satisfied with Venezuela’s Elections Observation Rules”, Gregory Wilpert, Venezuelanalysis.com, July 16, 2004.

[14] .“Venezuelan Recall Campaign Softens Tone”, Christopher Toothaker, Associated Press, July 18, 2004.

[15] “Venezuela’s election council sets date for verification of disputed signatures on recall vote petition”, Christopher Toothaker, Associated Press, April 21, 2004.

[16] Zamora: "Estamos satisfechos con los resultados del simulacro nacional”www.cne.gov.ve, July 18, 2004.

[17] “Venezuela owns stake in ballots”, The Miami Herald, May 28, 2004.

[18] Brian C. Mooney, op cit.

[19] Larry Rohter, “Court Orders Venezuela to Postpone Election on Sunday”, The New York Times, May 26, 2000.

[20] “UPI Energy Watch” , John C.K. Daly, United Press International, July 16, 2004.

[21] “When the Umpires Take Sides”, Editorial, The New York Times, March 29, 2004.

[22] J. Taylor Rushing, “Florida approves touch-screen vote system; But Diebold’s equipment has raised flags in at least four states”, Florida Times-Union, May 18, 2004.

[23] Brian C. Mooney, “As E-Voting Grows, Calls for Paper Trail Delay Cards’ Demise”, The Boston Globe, June 21, 2004.

[24] Brian C. Mooney, op cit.

[25] .“Voting-system Firm Drops Venezuela as an Investor”, The Miami Herald, June 12, 2004.

[26] Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Hearing on Venezuela, June 24, 2004.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Electronic Touch-Screens Tested For Venezuela Recall Vote”, Associated Press, July 18, 2004.

[29] “Zamora: Estamos satisfechos con resultados del simulacro electoral”, Noticias CNE, July 18, 2004, www.cne.gov.ve.

[30] NED Grant 2002-021, 2/1/02 - 9/30/03, CIPE Quarterly Report, April, May, June 2003.

[31] Proceedings of the Special Parliamentary Commission to Investigate the Events of April 11-14, 2002, National Assembly of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, May 2, 2002.

[32] CEDICE “Consensus Building a National Agenda", Grant Agreement 0102522-000-00, 3rd Quarter report, March-May 31, 2003; CEDICE “Consensus Building a National Agenda”, Grant Agreement 0102522-000-0, 2nd Quarter Report, December 1, 2002- February 28, 2003

[33] Proceedings of the Special Parliamentary Commission to Investigate the Events of April 11-14, 2002, National Assembly of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, May 2, 2002. CEDICE “Consensus Building a National Agenda", Grant Agreement 0102522-000- 00, 3rd Quarter report, March-May 31, 2003

[34] The “Carmona Decree”. April 12, 2002, Miraflores Palace, Caracas, Venezuela

[35] “Ampliacion Venezuela: Campana por referendum arranca con encuestas y musica”, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, July 2, 2004.

[36] .”“Opposition Wishing for Ultimate End to Chavez” T. Christian Miller, Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2002.