Media Fails to Inform Public about Shifting Opposition Demands in Post-Election Venezuela

“Venezuela to audit votes without opposition conditions” reads the headline of a BBC article published over the weekend. According to the piece, Venezuela’s electoral authority “will not carry out the full recount demanded by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.” A USA Today article from last Thursday notes that “Capriles said the opposition would not participate in the audit because the National Electoral Council did not meet its demand for an examination of registers containing voters' signatures and fingerprints.” An Associated Press headline – “Government formally rejects top-to-bottom Venezuela vote audit, heightening tensions” – suggests that the Electoral Council’s rejection of the opposition’s demands is stoking the flames of political conflict in the country.

As is often the case in the media’s coverage of Venezuela, a crucial piece of context is missing from these and other articles on the recent decisions of the National Electoral Council (known by its Spanish initials as CNE). Faithful readers of our blog will remember that Henrique Capriles, after the CNE announced that he’d lost the elections by a narrow margin of around 270,000 votes (narrowed down to 224,000 votes following the final count of votes cast abroad), refused to accept the results and immediately called for a recount, though other opposition spokespeople called instead for a “complete audit” of the voting machine receipts. After first calling on his supporters to take to the streets, leading to violent clashes in which over half a dozen people were reportedly killed, Capriles finally formally filed a set of demands to the CNE. Subsequently, on April 18th, the CNE agreed to audit the remaining 46% of boxes of voting machine receipts that had not yet been verified (54% of the boxes had been previously verified in the presence of witnesses from both parties). 

What AP, USA Today, BBC and others fail to mention in their most recent articles is that Capriles accepted the CNE’s April 18th decision to proceed with the audit of the remaining voting receipt boxes, and said that the opposition would participate in the process. According to AFP and other sources, Capriles said that the opposition campaign “accepts what the CNE (…) has announced to the country. We will be there in the audit. We consider that the problems are in these 12,000 boxes (that will finally be opened in this audit). We will undoubtedly be able to show the country the truth.”

Yet, soon after Capriles publicly accepted the CNE’s decision, he and others from the opposition began to shift their demands. After originally claiming that a full audit of the voting receipts would shed light on the alleged fraud that had occurred – initially claiming that their own quick count showed Capriles winning by 300,000 votes – the opposition decided to focus primarily on the election’s voting record books (cuadernos de votación). These books, present at each voting station, are where voters place their fingerprints and signatures after having voted electronically and deposited the paper receipts reflecting their voting choice in sealed boxes. According to opposition leader Antonio Ledezma these books are in fact “where the crime has taken place.”

How these books could provide evidence of fraud isn’t clear. Among the many safeguards found in Venezuela’s voting system are electronic fingerprint detectors which verify a voter’s identity and prevent him or her from voting twice. Furthermore, witnesses from both the opposition and pro-government parties are present at every voting station. In these conditions, whether or not the record books are systematically filled in correctly by voters, it is extremely unlikely that anyone could get away with voting twice. 

One thing is certain though. The audit of some 15 million signatures and fingerprints found in the voting record books would be a very long process indeed, probably significantly longer than the thirty-day audit of the remaining boxes of voting machine receipts that has yet to begin. Given the infinitesimally small odds that the audit of remaining voting receipt boxes will produce significant discrepancies (as we showed in this statistical calculation last week), it appears that the opposition is mainly intent on trying to maintain a climate of uncertainty and political tension for as long as possible. By failing to provide its readers with critical background information on the opposition’s actions to date, much of the major English language media may also be helping promote this climate of tension.

The U.S. and U.K. major media have also reported very little of the useful background information that CNE president Tibisay Lucena provided Venezuelans late last week in a long statement explaining how the audit of the remaining voting receipt boxes would take place and why the CNE wasn’t acceding to the opposition’s new demands. She noted that the CNE has made many concessions to the opposition, resulting in an electoral process with 18 different audits, all of which involve witnesses from both parties.  Some 14 audits had already been agreed to by the CNE in previous elections (they are detailed here), and as Lucena explains:

here – which appears to be one of the document “annexes” to which Lucena refers. If this document is meant to make a persuasive case for fraud, or any other irregularities that allowed Maduro to somehow steal the election, it isn’t very successful. It starts off by stating that 535 electronic voting machines broke down (about 1.4 percent of the nearly 40,000 machines in use during the elections) without mentioning that the CNE had a contingency in place that allowed them to rapidly replace these machines. Nowhere have allegations emerged that individuals failed to vote because a machine broke down, and as noted in our April 14 live blog, election monitors witnessed broken machines being quickly replaced with functional ones. 

Lucena also makes a few comments on some of the other slides in this powerpoint presentation: