The surprises are still coming from Venezuela’s elections for state governor on Oct. 15. The headline result — a shocking, across-the-board victory for the ruling Socialists — stunned the public in Caracas and those up and down the hemisphere. But that, as has now become clear, is not the end of the story.
The ruling party founded by the late Hugo Chávez and run by his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, piled on the dirty tricks to win this election. In itself, that is nothing new. Illegal campaign funding, intimidation, threats, harassment, coercion: All these things have become sadly normalized in Venezuela over the past five years, and they no longer count as news.
But through it all, the government clung steadfastly to one last source of democratic legitimacy — at least the vote count itself wasn’t rigged. This turned out to be a powerful claim. Even when the conditions surrounding the vote were profoundly unfree and entirely unfair, the final tally reflected the votes cast on election day.
The government could claim this because Venezuela has electronic voting machines that are at once sophisticated and auditable. Voters punch their votes into a terminal, and the machine prints out a paper voucher. The vouchers are then deposited in a ballot box. At the end of the day, the machine produces an electronic tally. It’s printed out, in triplicate, and witnesses for all sides sign it. Then (and only then), the machine transmits the total electronically to a tallying center in Caracas. Volunteers at each voting center are then supposed to hand-count a sample of the paper vouchers deposited in ballot boxes at each center.
To make a long story short, the system is designed to produce three separate counts: the machine tally, the hand-count tally and the tally reported in the central website back in Caracas. It’s impossible to rig any of them without causing an obvious discrepancy with the other two. Since witnesses from all sides walk away with signed copies of the tallies at each voting center, the government can’t cheat without leaving a trail of evidence making it obvious that the government has done so.
It’s a good system, and it has served the government well. For more than a decade, the government has deflected all opposition claims of fraud with a simple, devastating reply: Where’s your evidence? The way the system is set up, if the tally itself was tampered with, you’d be able to prove it.
And indeed, for all its (justified) frustrations over unfair voting conditions, the opposition had never been able to prove this kind of tallying fraud … until now, apparently.
On Thursday morning, the opposition’s umbrella organization issued evidence suggesting that the race for governor in Bolívar state had been straight-up stolen. The machine printouts generated by at least 11 polling stations clearly didn’t match the results being reported by the regime-controlled National Elections Council in Caracas. According to Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), the discrepancies were blatant and would have been enough to flip what had been a tight race in a strategic region.
Bolívar state is Venezuela’s mining heartland. In the past few years, hundreds of illegal mines have sprung up, as desperate city-dwellers from around Venezuela try their luck at gold mining. It’s widely surmised that the criminal gangs that control these illegal mines pay protection money to the state government to persuade it to look the other way. In other words, losing the Bolívar state governorship could cost the ruling Socialists control of a hugely profitable racket.
According to the voting machine printouts now in the opposition’s hands, they did indeed lose it, by just 728 out of more than half-a-million votes cast. Close enough to “flip” by adulterating just a handful of machine tallies. The evidence seems incontrovertible.
But this isn’t really a story about what happened in Bolívar state. It’s a story about the collapse of the last shred of democratic legitimacy preserved by the regime. The final “yes, but” in the socialists’ arsenal has fallen.
For years the Venezuelan government has been at pains to note that, whatever the circumstances, the candidate who gets the most votes wins. As of this week, that’s now demonstrably false.