I will observe the 2006 Venezuelan presidential elections with the Bolivarian Circle of Boston.
Monday, December 04, 2006
We started the morning by observing the elections in the Escuela Nacional Bolivariana Baridida in Barquisimeto. There were six "mesas" (voting booths) in the voting center, and a long line stretched several blocks down the street from the front entrance to the school. Elderly people were allowed to go to the front of the line. Today was overcast with a cool breeze, making waiting in line not as much of a burden as it otherwise might be.
Five people worked each voting booth. When a voter enters the room, one of the election officials checks the identification against the registry of voters, has that person sign and place a thumb print beside the name, and then stamps "vote" beside the name. The voter then proceeds to the next table where the president of the "mesa" asks if the voter knows how to vote, and if not gives instructions. The president presses a button which unlocks the voting machine, and the voter proceeds alone to the machine. On a tablet the voter selects a candidate and party, and that image appears on the voting machine. The voter presses a button to confirm the selection, and the machine prints out a receipt with the candidate's name and party. The voter than deposits that receipt in a box for a paper trail audit. The final step is to have the voter dip the pinky finger in indelible ink so as to prevent voting again.
Two witnesses were in each of the mesas we observed, one for each of the two main candidates. One of the witnesses had a printout of the list of voters for that mesa, and checked off each name as they came in the room. The second witness simply observed the process. Other than minor technical problems, the witnesses said that the voting was going smoothly. Most of the problems were a result of voter error or confusion, despite recent elections utilizing the exact same equipment and an intensive voter education campaign.
The most common voter error was pressing "vote" without verifying that the candidate's name and image had appeared on the machine. This causes the receipt to print out blank. Once the vote has been cast as such, a re-vote becomes impossible. A technician explained that the system is set up to allow a null vote, but that multiple checks are designed to prevent such an unintentional occurrence. If a voter has not selected a candidate, the machine will as ask if indeed does that person not want to vote for any candidate.
11:45 a.m.: random firecrackers are exploding around the neighborhood, setting off car alarms. We've been told that this is an opposition tactic to help spread unease among the population.
In one case we observed the receipt printed out blank despite the voter claiming that she had selected a candidate properly. The mesa temporarily shut down as the officials debated how to proceed. Two different technicians (of the three working the center) were brought in to check out the machine. It appeared that there was not a problem with the machine, and they declared that if indeed the voter had properly pressed the correct buttons that the vote would be registered as such. Karen, the coordinator for the entire voting center, made an announcement to the entire mesa that they would fill out a declaration ("acta") reporting on the error. Initially, the coordinator said that for privacy's sake the name of the candidate would not appear on the declaration, but when the voter insisted she conceded to allow that notation.
After this apparent glitch, the president asked for silence in the room to monitor carefully the next several votes. She carefully guided the voters through the process, and waited to hear a "beep" when each button was pressed. With silence in the room, the beeps were clearly audible and verified each step of the process. Throughout this entire process, each official was careful to stand back from the voting machine so as not to compromise the integrity of the vote. The only two exceptions were the technician who checked out the machine, and elderly voters who brought along an assistant to help cast the vote (for example, a grandson helping his grandfather vote).
A technician said that machines had been set up in advance to train the election officials as well as any voters who wanted to practice voting, but only one person (in addition to the officials) showed up to receive pre-election training. The machines were installed in the school on Friday, and had been guarded by the military since then. Several soldiers with automatic weapons patrolled the premises while the voting proceeded. Once the voting is completed, the machines are to be connected to telephone lines to transmit the data to the electoral council. If the phone lines go down, the technician has equipment to transmit the data with a cell phone. The machines have backup battery power that should allow them to continue to operate for eight hours if the power goes out.
The polls were to open at 6 a.m., but some initial glitches delayed that opening at this voting center. The polls are to close at 4 p.m., but will remain open as long as people are in line. One technician said that it would probably be midnite before everything was wrapped up and he could go home.
For an election with two main presidential candidates (the incumbent Hugo Chavez and challenger Manuel Rosas) for only one single race (there where no other issues or races), the ballet appears to be unusually complicated. By my count, Chavez appeared with 24 different party affiliations, and Rosales with 41, with about 20 other minor candidates (both men and women). There were 86 possible choices (so I'm missing one somewhere, but you get the point).
In sum, the voting process we observed was slow and carefully monitored which resulted in long lines, but otherwise appears to be proceeding in an orderly and transparent function. </Marc> <!--9:35 AM-->
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