Why People Want an Election Recount in Venezuela

PHOTO: Opposition supporters and students, some holding pictures of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, confront riot police as they block a highway in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, April 15, 2013.

Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo

With recent news of post-election violence in Venezuela, one issue has slightly faded away from the horizon. The reason there is a political crisis in Venezuela at all is because a large segment of the population does not trust in the results that were announced by election officials on Sunday. They want votes to be audited and counted once again, and have been angered by recent declarations from government officials that no such thing will be done.

The push for a full recount of votes is led by Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate who apparently lost on Sunday by less than 300,000 votes. Capriles justified a recount on Sunday by explaining that a counting of votes conducted by his party's election witnesses at voting centers across the country suggested that he had won the presidency.

Chávez's protégé, Nicolas Maduro, initially accepted a recount in a speech delivered on Sunday night in front of thousands of supporters, but inexplicably changed his mind on Monday when he was declared the election's official winner by the National Electoral Council. Still, the opposition is pushing for a recount, with several protests taking place on Monday and Tuesday, in which people took to the streets in different cities.

Here's why many people in Venezuela want a full recount:

1. Thousands of irregularities appear to have occurred on election day

According to Capriles, there were more than 3,200 violations on election day that could have compromised voters' freedom to pick their candidate of choice. These violations include hundreds of instances of "voting assistance," in which government supporters looked over people's shoulders as they cast their ballots. Electoral witnesses for the opposition documented illegal cases of "assisted voting" in 534 voting stations across the country.

NGOs who monitored the election have also talked about dozens of cases in which voters were transported to polling stations in buses owned by state run companies, an indication that they could have been herded to polling stations in order to vote for Maduro.

Voting observers for the opposition also reported 421 cases in which Venezuela's socialist party set up tents outside voting stations to try to persuade, intimidate or control voters. According to Venezuelan law, political parties are banned from distributing electoral propaganda on election day or setting up tents within 600 feet of a voting center.

Venezuela's National Electoral Council has so far not responded to these claims, or said whether they will be investigated. In theory, the votes cast at voting centers where violations occurred should be canceled, so if such violations occurred in places where Maduro got a majority of votes, that would narrow the gap in favor of Capriles.

2. Machines can make mistakes

According to Ricardo Matute, a spokesman for the election watchdog group Voto Joven, a recount is "appropriate" given the small difference between both candidates.

Matute says that a recount is needed not just because violations occurred, but also because there could have been glitches in Venezuela's electronic voting system that may have affected the counts.

In Venezuela, voters cast their ballots electronically by pressing on the picture of their favorite candidate on a touch screen. The voting machine then prints out a paper receipt that says who the person voted for, which the voter must deposit in a ballot box.

The results announced by the National Electoral Council (CNE), however, come from information that is sent electronically from each voting machine to a central vote counting hub. Not from a manual count of voting receipts deposited in ballot boxes.

Matute says that electricity issues or problems with the internet could mess up the CNE's vote count by affecting the transfer of information from individual voting machines to the central hub.

"That is why the papers that are left behind should be counted, as they help us to verify the info that is transmitted electronically to the CNE," Matute said. The CNE, however, claimed that it had already counted 54 percent of voting receipts -- a claim disputed by the opposition -- and that it did not need to count all of them.

But Matute added that there were approximately 40,000 voting machines in use in Venezuela on election day, with each machine processing around 375 votes. If each machine failed to transfer 3 or 4 votes properly -- a 1 percent margin of error -- those errors could make up for the 300,000 vote gap between Maduro and Capriles.

3. Some segments of the population do not trust the CNE

Beyond the technicalities and reports of violations in voting centers, there is another problem in Venezuela. The National Electoral Council, the agency in charge of organizing elections and counting the votes, has very limited credibility amongst some sectors of Venezuelan society, who say the agency sides with the current government.

Critics of the CNE claim that it has repeatedly failed to act on complaints filed by the opposition on the use of public funds for the campaigns of Maduro and other socialist candidates, who use the resources of state companies at will to organize rallies and mobilize their voters. In the month leading up to the October election in which Chávez participated, and in the month leading up to this election, the CNE also ignored complaints about excessive airtime for socialist candidates on publicly funded TV channels.

Given this context, it makes sense that many opposition supporters in Venezuela are suspicious of figures published by the CNE, particularly in such a tight election.

The CNE claims that it is neutral because it has organized races for municipal mayors and state governors in which opposition candidates have been declared the winners. But rejecting the request for a recount in this presidential election certainly hurts the agency's credibility.

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