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Venezuela

I will observe the 2006 Venezuelan presidential elections with the Bolivarian Circle of Boston.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

<Marc> 

Counting the votes

Polls were to close at 4 p.m. on Sunday, but were to stay open as long as there was a line of voters. We arrived at the polling station at Liceo Mario Briceño Igagorry in Barquisimeto to observe the count, and at 4 p.m. only the sixth “mesa” (of six) still had a line. The number of voters was evenly distributed among the mesas (about 520 each), but in the sixth mesa officials only let in one voter at a time while in the others a constant stream flowed through the room.

Officials declared that 10 observers for each mesa could come in to watch the vote count, which caused a bit of jockeying outside the polling station as activists tried to determine who would get in. Voters were not allowed to wear political propaganda or party colors (red for Chavez; blue for Rosales), but opposition members had agreed to wear white in order to be able to identify each other. This was a conservative neighborhood, and there was a sea of white outside the station. When a car waving Chavista flags drove by, they would scream about how they were violating election law. When an opposition member went by and waved a symbol of their campaign, they would cheer wildly. Consistency is not a virtue among esqualidos.

It was after dark when table six finally closed and the police and soldiers guarding the voting station began to let people in to vote. Our observer group was allowed to place one observer at each mesa. When one of our members, Susan, entered table four the already assembled witnesses cheered wildly. I was placed in table three. Opposition members whispered that polls showed Rosales taking the elections by 80 percent (Chavistas reported that they were winning the election by as much as 70 percent). From the opposition perspective, our presence would legitimize their victory.

After much waiting, a technician came to the room, entered the code for the machine, and printed out the voting results. About 380 people voted at each mesa, for about a 75 percent participation rate. Voting results were by party not candidate, so it was not immediately obvious who had won. One of the officials began to read off the tallies so that witnesses could make a vote count. About 160 had voted for Chavez, and about 220 for Rosales with 3 votes for one of the other minor candidates and one null vote. When the wide margin of victory (60 to 40 percent, about the reverse of the national outcome) became apparent, white-shirted officials let out a sigh of relief while those who were witnesses cheered. The few Chavistas largely remained quiet. The streets became increasingly noisy with firecrackers and both Rosales and Chavez supporters parading in front of the polling station.

The technician at my mesa than loudly proclaimed to those assembled that he was connecting the voting machine to the central collection point, transmitting the data, and printing out confirmation that the data was sent. Convinced that they had won, most of the witnesses left. The election officials began the long process of wrapping up the paperwork, signing forms, packaging up the equipment and boxes, etc. The technician printed out 10 copies of the vote report, and each official signed each copy for each representative at the mesa. A copy was also delivered to the election observers. The technician printed out a separate report showing each vote cast. Multiple redundancies were built in throughout the entire process.

Once everything had been packed up (with table six taking much longer than the others), the president of each mesa gathered to select three tables for the paper audit. David, part of our observer team, was selected as an impartial person to select the three mesas. Six pieces of paper with the numbers one through six were put in a plastic bag and he pulled out two, four, and five. Everyone sighed that he had not pulled number six, though some had previously debated requiring the sixth table to do the manual count. Seemingly without complaint, the three selected mesas went back to work, pulling out the instruction manuals and opening up the material that they had just packaged. I observed table two as the president of the mesa pulled out each ballot and counted them one by one to 385–the same number of people who had voted at that mesa. Everyone sighed that there would be no discrepancy to resolve. The president then began to count the votes for each candidate (after conferring with the instruction manual, they determined that the vote would be by candidate not party, making the process somewhat simpler).

The entire process was very transparent. An immense amount of paperwork slowed the vote tally. Officials from competing parties seemed to work well together, without recriminations and bitterness otherwise widespread in a sharply divided country. While we were still in the voting station counting the votes, the CNE (National Electoral Council) made their preliminary announcement that Chavez had won the election. Susan reported that those gathered in table four began to whisper “it can’t be, it can’t be; but they say it is final.” Fireworks and cheers and singing and dancing on the streets made it clear that Chavez had easily won reelection and that anything we were now doing in this voting station would not change the outcome. But the election officials prodded on with their vote tallies. Such is the nature of a people’s commitment to the institutions of a democratic electoral process.
</Marc> <!--10:12 AM-->

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