Much has been written about Venezuela's upcoming legislative elections, but unfortunately the debate is not always grounded in reality. As the President of Venezuela's National Electoral Council (known by the Spanish initials CNE) I would like to address some of the allegations and share some facts about our electoral system. Some of these facts, such as our high turnouts resulting from the increased inclusion of previously disenfranchised, marginalized populations, are hardly reported outside of Venezuela.
Elections in our country were traditionally marred by widespread suspicions of fraud due to the opacity of the vote tallying process. Founded as an independent branch of the Venezuelan government in 1999, the new CNE has worked hard to rebuild trust in the Venezuelan electoral system.
Most Venezuelans have confidence in the CNE -- this is clear from the record high levels of turnout that have been achieved in recent elections. Countries where the populace has genuine concerns about the integrity of the ballot have very low turnouts. In the last 2010 legislative elections, turnout was 66 percent and it was 80 percent in the most recent presidential elections, far higher in both elections than the average before the new CNE was founded.
Notably, both the governing parties and the opposition parties use the CNE to oversee their internal elections. Earlier this year we oversaw the primaries that both sides held for the coming assembly elections.
Technically, our electoral processes are watertight: individual votes are verified and there are 20 different audits of the voting system. Declared the "best in the world" by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Venezuela's innovative and modern electoral system is one of the world's most impervious to fraud. We use an automated touch screen voting system with thumb print recognition which also produces a paper receipt to confirm voters'choices, subsequently deposited in a safeguarded ballot box.
Representatives from all parties pre-audit the voting system and, on polling day, witnesses from the parties and the community are invited to observe proceedings in polling stations and the CNE offices. A random sample of 54 percent of the paper receipts are counted in front of representatives from all parties involved, making any fraud with the electronic count statistically impossible.
As a neutral organization in election races, we review requests from all parties for ways to improve the process. In response to opposition parties'requests, we agreed to conduct an immediate posterior audit of fingerprint "no matches", following the close of polls, in order to rule out identity theft and any possibility of multiple voting.
However, the biggest discussion in the media internationally around our elections rests in the issue of election monitors.
Until 2006 there was international observation of our polls. Since then, the CNE decided to enhance the sovereign character of the country's elections, joining countries in the hemisphere such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Canada and the U.S., to carry out elections without formal international electoral observation.
We allow international accompaniment of the elections, which is in many ways more rigorous but focused on the mutual improvement of the electoral process, rather than the tutelage implied by observation. Accompaniment missions consist primarily of technical experts, who assess the electoral process at every stage: the primaries, campaign period, voting process, and during the count and transmission of the results. Accompaniers move freely throughout the country, and can meet with all political actors, national authorities, and citizens in general.
A number of international organizations are sending missions to accompany the elections this year. The UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) mission consists of 50-70 experts, who will observe the process in various cities and 11 of the 23 states of the country. The Council of Latin-American Electoral Experts (CEELA) and CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), amongst others, will be sending missions.
There are thousands of widely respected, and accredited domestic observers, who will be monitoring both the campaign, the election itself and the post-election audits. In fact, we have granted twice as many credentials to domestic observes in the last three years. All competing electoral parties are entitled to send witnesses to all polling stations, the CNE facilities, and to the post-election audits.
Like much of the region, there is a long history of inequality and marginalization in Venezuela. Since its founding in 1999, the CNE has focused on inclusiveness. Previously, Afro-Venezuelan, indigenous and poorer Venezuelans were often disenfranchised; many were missing from the electoral register, and there was an absence of polling stations in many areas, particularly in poor communities. The CNE has spearheaded a number of campaigns to rectify this. We are proud to have raised the number of registered voters from 80 percent of the voting age population in 1998 to 97.25 percent in 2015.
We welcome scrutiny and debate regarding our elections, but ask that it be grounded in fact. Some of our greatest international critics, who are trying to discredit our system because of lack of international observers, are the very countries that prohibit international observers of their own processes, which are arguably outdated and severely flawed. While Venezuela faces numerous challenges in other areas, the electoral process is not one of them. Venezuelans can be certain their voices will be heard at the ballot box through a celebrated democratic process.