In Venezuela, electoral myths are history

Venezuelans have 100% automated elections thanks to the use of voting machines, electronic ballots and a biometric identification device. Photo: ACN

On its path towards e-voting, Venezuela has overcome technical, logistic, political, and even mythical obstacles for more than a decade. Eugenio Martinez, prominent journalist in electoral matters for El Universal newspaper, offered a presentation on the myths that automation has had to sort out in the country, during a workshop for journalists about coverage of electoral processes organized by the Carter Center.

The presentation walked through the elections held between 2004 and 2012. The first year became a turning point for Venezuela, as it used a recall referendum to switch technologies, thus taking the step from manual voting and automated precinct count to electronic voting. This year, on the other hand, will be another when SAI (Integrated Authentication System) is put to the test. SAI is a new biometric identification device, designed by Smartmatic, Venezuela’s electoral technology provider, and which is attached to the voting machine in order to validate voters’ identities through their fingerprint.

The selected time range marks two important moments for the country in the development of its electoral system, but it also underscores the fact that political pressure and that exerted by the citizens, rather than hindering the modernization of suffrage, gave impulse to technology to become more effective in the keeping of people’s will.

Martínez illustrates this recalling that during many electoral journeys, vote secrecy was heavily questioned, with arguments that ranged from the voting machine receiving and transmitting information during the process to the machine saving the suffrage sequence, consequently revealing the voter’s identity, or the claim that votes were saved in its memory before the elections. All these suspicions were invalidated.

First of all, Venezuelan electoral machines are not connected to any network, neither before nor during the election. Only after undergoing scrutiny and printing the result minute is it connected to transmit the information. In order to guarantee that it has no information stored before the event, those in charge of each polling station must print what is called the starting act before beginning to receive voters. This record must show a total of zero votes. About the voting sequence, Martínez explains that when the elector casts their ballot, the vote enters a “provisional” memory, which stores up to five votes. Every time a new vote enters this memory, it is reorganized automatically (the way a game of bingo would) and one vote is extracted, which goes to the permanent record. Finally, randomly selected votes are registered in encrypted files having no relation with the voters’ arrival order.

The journalist also states that it is said that with the new SAI, the National Electoral Council (CNE) will know in real time who people are voting for, and that this system does not guarantee the one voter, one vote principle. The answers to these pleas have also been technical. It was revealed that “the voting machine to which SAI is connected is completely disconnected from communication channels during the voting process. Secondly, the voting machine’s memory only stores fingerprints corresponding to voters who cast their ballot in it.”

Finally, Martínez points out that due to the fact that a robust auditing process is applied throughout the different phases of all the elections in the country, “technicians from the political parties have established that votes are encrypted through a key that has been safely built by a mixture of portions provided by the parties, Smartmatic, and the CNE itself (…). Once the election is closed, the machine cannot be turned on again. In addition, vote encryption through a safe and secret password makes it impossible to add new votes.”

All fraud or conspiracy theories have been invalidated by technology and the guarantees it offers. The key to eliminate fears has been the fact that CNE has been working together with political parties, and they have shared the responsibility to shield the vote and make the most of technological advances to have an electoral system that guarantees people’s will. Myths in this country are history.


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