CARACAS -- As the United States squabbles over its voter ID laws, Venezuelans will face one of the most rigorous systems in the hemisphere when they head to the polls Oct. 7.
After keying in an identification number, a voter’s photo and name will pop up on a screen. Only after validating their identity with a thumb swipe over an electronic reader will the voting machine be activated.
The government and independent observers say the new system is one of the most sophisticated in the hemisphere. It’s designed to weed out double voting and leave behind a paper and digital trail that makes it fast and easy to audit.
“As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world,” former President Jimmy Carter said this month at The Carter Center.
But in polarized Venezuela — where President Hugo Chávez is facing one of the tightest races of his 14-year tenure — some are fretting that the new machines, and other quirks of the electoral system, may give the government an edge.
Venezuelan elections have been questioned in the past, but fraud has become the third rail of national politics. The opposition downplays the threat as it wants to encourage high turnout. And the administration’s legitimacy rests on the back of the system. Those who sound the alarm are often marginalized as conspiracy theorists. But the system raises legitimate concerns, some experts say.
Independent auditors and the opposition’s own technical team say the thumbprint reader attached to the Smartmatic voting machines scrambles the order of votes, so there’s no way to know who voted for whom. But the fact that the identification system is visibly linked to the voting panel seems designed to generate doubts, said Ludwig Moreno, a member of the Voto Limpio election watchdog group.
“Let me be clear: the vote is most likely secret, but it doesn’t appear to be secret,” he said. “And that’s why these machines were installed.”
Voter privacy is a sensitive issue in Venezuela. In 2004, the names of more than 2.4 million people who had signed a presidential recall petition were released.
Government agencies were accused of firing and discriminating against people on the Lista Tascón. In 2005, Chávez called on his supporters to quit using the list, but it left many wary of openly opposing the administration.
“These machines strip away the concept of free and secret elections in a country that lived through the terror of the Lista Tascón,” Moreno explained.
Still, many view the privacy warnings as an opposition ploy to cloud an eventual Chávez victory. On a recent weekday, Luís Otorio, 62, a retired dentist, stepped out of one of the mock voting booths set up around Caracas. He declared the new system “ super fino” and said the only people who were questioning it were supporters of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
“They’ll say or do anything to win this race,” Otorio said. “They’re thrashing around like drowning chickens.”
On paper, Venezuela is one of the most civically active nations on the planet, with a voter registration rate of 96.5 percent. (By comparison, only 65 percent of potential U.S. voters are registered.) The Chávez administration has said the historic levels are the result of a massive registration drive, which began in 2003. But for some, the figures are too good.