Investing in Democracy in Venezuela

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - OCTOBER 09: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gives his first press conference after winning the national
CARACAS, VENEZUELA - OCTOBER 09: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gives his first press conference after winning the national elections for President during the period 2013-2019, on October 09, 2012 in Caracas, Venezuela. Chavez won with the 55.14% (8.062.056 votes) while Henrique Capriles obtained 44,24% (6.468.450 votes). (Photo by Gregorio Marrero/LatinContent/Getty Images)

by Susan Scott and Azadeh Shahshahani

As part of an eight-member delegation from the National Lawyers Guild, we spent the week leading up to the October 7 Venezuelan presidential election in Caracas, learning about the electoral system that Jimmy Carter has called "the best in the world."

On the day of the election, we observed it in action all over the country as part of a group of more than 220 international parliamentarians, election officials, academics, journalists and judges. As predicted by the vast majority of polling organizations, Hugo Chavez was reelected by a double digit margin (55.11 percent to 44.27 percent) with an unprecedented turnout of 80.5 percent.

Free and fair elections are only one feature of a democracy, but in Venezuela, elections have become something more -- a national project which knows no party and constitutes a major national investment.

What makes Venezuela's electoral system stand out resides in a combination of factors. The Bolivarian project of "21st Century Socialism" and Latin American integration, initiated by Hugo Chavez and his supporters after his first election in 1998, is a fundamentally democratic project. Chavez has repeatedly emphasized that its legitimacy and viability lies in the will of the people as expressed in free and fair elections. The 1999 Bolivarian Constitution was itself drafted by an assembly of elected members with significant popular input and was adopted in a national referendum by a 72 percent popular vote. It provides for an independent National Electoral Council (CNE), chosen by the elected National Assembly (Congress), and with a constitutional status equal to the other four branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial and Poder Ciudadano, "People's Power," which includes the Attorney General, Human Rights Defender, and Comptroller General). The Constitution provides for more than the election of political representatives -- there are provisions for referenda to change the Constitution (used in 2007 and 2009), referenda to abrogate laws, and even for recall of the president (attempted in 2004). As more and more elections are conducted under the CNE's leadership (over 15 since the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution) and more electoral laws and regulations passed, the electoral system has become increasingly trusted and respected by the Venezuelan populace. The system has been used by unions to elect leadership and even by the opposition to elect its standard bearer in a primary last February (also witnessed by an NLG delegation.

Since the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez and the 1999 adoption of the Bolivarian Constitution, voter registration has climbed from 11 million in 1998 to almost 19 million today, as a result of a robust registration program throughout the country, targeting the country's poorest communities. All but 3.5 percent of eligible voters have registered, and the number of polling places has increased from 20,202 in 1998 to 38, 239 in 2012.

Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the Venezuelan electoral system is the technology used to record, verify and transmit the votes. The technology provides for accessible electronic voting with a verifiable paper trail and instant transmission of vote counts from remote locations to CNE headquarters. CNE's anti-hacking and multiple transparent audit and identity authentication systems have put to rest past opposition claims of fraud.

At each of the polling stations we visited, there were observers present representing both the Capriles and the Chavez camps. The observers expressed satisfaction with the integrity and transparency of the process, regardless of their political affiliation. We witnessed the Citizens' Verification Audits after the polls closed when the paper ballots were compared with the electronic results in a room with both sides' observers present.

We were present at the CNE headquarters in Caracas for the announcement of the election results within a few hours of the closing of the more than 38,000 polling stations throughout the country. And we watched as Capriles conceded on television within the next hour.

What struck us most was the national commitment to democracy as showcased by the very level of financial and popular investment in the entire electoral system. Aside from the cost for the technology transfer from the Venezuelan company that designed the voting machines (Smartmatic), there is the cost and effort to produce, maintain, repair, pack and transporting the 46,000 machines, each with its separate electronic ballot and fingerprint authentication machines, as well as the significant investment in training field operators for polling stations all over the country. With all the people required to do the work directly relating to the electoral process, one can only begin to imagine all the other jobs that result from this complex national process to ensure a fully transparent electoral system.

Susan Scott is the National Lawyers Guild International Committee Co-Chair. Azadeh Shahshahani is the National Lawyers Guild President.

This article originally appeared in Counterpunch: