From the San Jose
Recall Worries Venezuela's Opposition
July 28, 2004
By CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela's opposition worries that a recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez will, in the least, be made more difficult by new voter lists, an electronic voting system and untested thumbprint ID devices. At worst, some say, all that technology could be an elaborate attempt aimed at making the vote fail.
Venezuela's elections council says it is trying to ensure the vote's legitimacy with touchscreen voting, to avoid ballot-stuffing of the past, and a thumbprint ID registration system to keep people from voting more than once. Critics say requiring people to go through the process - which could end up taking several minutes - will only create bottlenecks and long lines.
"The number of prints - and the number each new print must be compared to - grows exponentially as time passes," ... "That's the problem: It may be quick early on, but it will be too lengthy at the end of the day."
The acrimony is no surprise in Venezuela, where the recall effort has been a bitterly divisive issue. ...
Nearly every facet of the recall planning has exacerbated that friction. And the technology - from basic to complex - is a big part of that.
For example, Venezuela's elections council is adding voting centers ... But the Democratic Coordinator coalition claims that thousands of citizens will have to go to different polling stations on Aug. 15 than they have in the past - and they haven't been notified by the council.
Council president Francisco Carrasquero insisted that Venezuelans need only call a toll-free number or visit a council Web page to see where they should vote. But opposition leader Jesus Torrealba claimed Tuesday that the information given by phone often differs from that on the Web site.
Torrealba added that the council's Internet voter list conflicts with information in the Coordinator's own database.
Doubts persist over touchscreen voting machines never before used in an election.
Many computer experts say touchscreen machines, on which a third of the U.S. electorate will vote in November, are vulnerable to hackers and mechanical failure. The elections council says independent auditors will inspect the machines before Aug. 15, but it hasn't announced when.
Antonio Mugica, chief executive officer of Smartmatic Corp., the Florida-based company providing the machines, insists that paper records of each vote generated by the machines will guarantee transparency.
In 2000, elections for president, congressmen and governors were postponed due to technical problems with a different e-voting system. Voting eventually took place with few problems.
Opposition leaders also worry about the plans to use machines that will match voters' thumbprints with their ID cards to avert fraud such as multiple voting.
The 12,000 thumbprint machines and the 20,000 Smartmatic machines aren't connected. Voters simply register their prints before moving on to voting machines.
But critics fear forcing voters to provide thumbprints will generate more confusion on voting day. As voter turnout gradually increases, it could take the machines several minutes to scan and register new prints because the print database would be constantly expanding. Opposition leaders claim millions could be left in long lines waiting to cast ballots as night falls.
California-based Cogent Systems Inc., which manufactured the print machines, referred queries to the elections council.
The machines could present "a complicated computational problem" if millions go to the polls, said Douglas Jones, associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa and chairman of the Iowa Board of Examiners for Voting Machines and Voting Systems.
Venezuela could have simplified things with a manual vote, said Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
"In a referendum where the vote is simply 'yes' or 'no,' using an electronic voting system is overkill," said Rubin, director of the university's Information Security Institute.