Today’s municipal elections are quite different from recent electoral processes in one important sense. For the first time since 2005 there are serious questions regarding the integrity of Venezuela’s electoral institutions. Indeed, former opposition candidate Henrique Capriles and opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD) still have not recognized the result of the April elections because their complaints were not duly investigated. Furthermore public approval of the National Electoral Council has fallen precipitously.

Contesting the April 14 Presidential Election

As is well known, Henrique Capriles contested the April 14 elections suggesting that there had been massive irregularities. (The Carter Center’s preliminary report released in July gives a good summary of events.) In April the CNE expanded its audit of the paper ballots from 53% of voter tables to a full 100%. This was originally accepted by Capriles. But after the CNE announced on April 26 the details of how the verification would be done, he backtracked and said that he could not accept a verification that did not match voter’s identity with the voters log kept in each table. This would have allowed auditors to identify discrepancies between voters who had signed the notebooks and the actual number of votes casts.

This was not an unreasonable position to take since simply verifying the receipts in the boxes would not address the issues the opposition was raising which had to do with the integrity of voter identity and autonomy, not the actual tabulation of votes cast. However, the CNE carried out and concluded the audit of paper ballots and unsurprisingly found a 99.98 percent match between them and the electronic tally.

By early May, Capriles and the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica had submitted two legal challenges to the Supreme Court (TSJ) asking to annul the elections (see Carter Center report pp.73-77). The first was presented by Capriles himself and challenged the entire process before, during and after the elections. It asked for the entire election to be annulled. The second made more specific claims and asked for the annulment of five thousand voting tables affecting more than two million voters. Both of these challenges were eventually thrown out by the Supreme Court in August.

In a June 3 press release opposition CNE rector Vicente Diaz suggested that the CNE had the ability to address Capriles’ complaints but was not doing due diligence.

The CNE has all of the tools to solve this situation, but it isn’t doing it. The CNE has not made public the Incidents Report which is able to detect if there were artificial votes in some tables on the part of the President of the table, whose finger print is the only one that can activate a voting machine more than once. This report has been ready for over a month and there is no reason not to make it available. The CNE also has said when and how it will carry-out the Fingerprint Duplicity Audit which is able to verify that nobody has voted twice or more, usurping the identity of people who are dead or did not vote. These delays only feed the doubts of those who question the announced result.

Apparently the CNE actually did carryout this fingerprint duplicity audit and Díaz suggests it showed marginal duplicity–not enough to have impacted the election. But the CNE decided not to make the results available until after the December elections. Without this information being made available, Capriles claims of fraud cannot be finally put to rest for the public.

The events following the April 14 elections have hurt public trust in the CNE, especially among opposition voters. A poll conducted by Datanálisis in early October showed that 60% of those surveyed did not trust the CNE. Worse yet, these perceptions were strongly impacted by partisan identity. 82.5% of those self-defined as pro-government did trust the CNE, whereas only 3.4% of opposition voters trusted it.

December 8 Election

Given the opposition’s discourse that the April elections were stolen from them and that Maduro is an unpopular president, it could be difficult for them to accept the results of today’s elections if they are adverse. The temptation to question the process will be strong.

Nevertheless, it will be more difficult for the opposition to claim widespread fraud this time since these are 337 separate elections, a good portion of which the opposition will win. It is much easier to claim fraud when there is only one contest involved and you therefore have nothing to lose.

The CNE has actually addressed some of the opposition’s concerns in recent month. It has purged the voter’s list of deceased voters and “homonyms,” (voters who appear twice in the list). It has tightened the voter identification protocol as well as requirements for assisted voting.

Nevertheless, in this election, just as in previous elections, the real problems are not with the election day machinery but in the CNE’s inability to ensure a fair campaign. Opposition Rector Vicente Díaz has called this the “the most unequal campaign in history,” pointing specifically to decree of December 8 as “National Loyalty to Chávez Day” as well as the use of “cadenas” (obligatory broadcasts of presidential messages) for partisan purposes (see here as well).

One can add to this a new media landscape that is less diverse than it was a year ago. While a year ago state television stations were resolutely pro-government and private broadcaster Globovisión was resolutely opposition, now Globovisión looks more like Televen, Venevisión and Unión Radio exhibiting a carefully calibrated equilibrium. Thus the broadcast spectrum now ranges from moderation to strongly pro-government with no representation of strong opposition positions. As a result there is little coverage of live opposition events, for example the nationwide opposition protest in late November.