The Washington Post
Venezuela Using Untested Voting Machines
By ALEXANDRA OLSON
the Associated Press
Sunday, July 11, 2004; 2:39 PM
CARACAS, Venezuela - Despite an electronic voting fiasco in 2000 and the
furor over e-voting in the United States, Venezuela is using untested
touchscreen computers for its recall referendum on Hugo Chavez's presidency.
Critics fear touchscreen voting machines in the Aug. 15 vote could fail
spectacularly, exacerbating a crisis over Chavez's rule that has polarized the
world's No. 5 oil exporter and killed dozens in sporadic political violence.
The touchscreen machines on which a third of the U.S. electorate will vote
in November are dangerously vulnerable to hackers, rigging and mechanical
failure, computer scientists generally agree.
That didn't deter the Chavez-dominated Venezuelan Elections Council from
choosing Smartmatic Corp., a little-known Boca Raton, Fla.-based company, to
provide similar technology - albeit with a printed record of each vote - for the
Smartmatic has never tested its machines in an election. And there has
been no independent analysis or certification of its touchscreen system,
although the council says the system will be audited before the vote.
In the United States, touchscreen computers are partly an attempt to
eliminate hanging chads and other problems associated with the disputed U.S.
presidential election results in Florida in 2000. Chavez often cites the Florida
debacle to question George W. Bush's presidential credentials.
Yet in Venezuela, an electronic voting system produced that very same year
what is widely known as the "mega-flop."
The biggest election in Venezuela's history was supposed to take place on
May 28, 2000. More than 6,000 public offices were up for grabs, and Chavez,
elected in 1998, was seeking re-election.
But two days before the vote, the Supreme Court postponed the election
because of problems with computer software needed to tabulate votes and register
more than 36,000 candidates. It was humiliating for election officials who had
insisted things were going smoothly.
The Omaha, Neb.-based software provider, Election Systems & Software,
blamed constant changes by election authorities in posting thousands of
E-voting did take place in July
2000 with few problems. But the postponement prompted authorities to reject any
new deal with ES&S and to retire machines from the Spanish company Indra.
This year, a pro-Chavez majority on the five-member elections council
voted to sign a $91 million contract with Smartmatic and its two partners,
Venezuelan software company Bitza Corp., and CANTV, Venezuela's publicly held
Council president Francisco Carrasquero said Smartmatic won based on three
factors: security, cost, and technology transfer.
In the past Venezuela depended on Indra or other foreign firms to run its
elections, Carrasquero said, while Smartmatic is providing Venezuela licenses
for its systems.
"Now it's in the council's hands, and we'll have autonomy designing
automated elections," he said.
Carrasquero also argued that e-voting is the best way to avoid ballot-stuffing
he said marred elections before Chavez came to power.
The Smartmatic deal includes 20,000 touchscreen voting machines and plans
to run regional elections in September. Another $24 million contract for the
referendum is in the works.
Two elections council members abstained from the Smartmatic vote. One of
them, Ezequiel Zamora, declared: "I thought a process as simple as a referendum
should be done manually. An untried system is always going to create doubt."
Chavez, whose term runs to 2007, can be recalled if the opposition gets
more votes than the nearly 3.8 million he received in 2000. Elections would be
held within 30 days to choose someone to serve out his term.
Chavez says the recall is an effort by a corrupt Venezuelan elite, backed
by Washington, to end his leftist revolution on behalf of the poor. Venezuela's
opposition accuses Chavez of gradually imposing an authoritarian regime.
Opponents initially objected to the e-voting plans, then asked for a
simultaneous audit using a small sampling of the machines.
"Smartmatic is a company that hasn't tested its system anywhere in the
world - and it's going to test it here in Venezuela in a process as important as
the recall referendum," complained Luis Planas, a member of the opposition COPEI
Suspicion deepened after The Miami Herald reported in May that a
Venezuelan state industrial development fund had invested in Bitza, whose role
is to integrate manual votes into the electronic system. Some 10 percent of
voters, mostly in rural areas, will cast manual ballots.
Bitza quickly announced it would buy back the government's 28 percent
Smartmatic President Antonio Mugica, who also co-founded Bitza, insists
his firm is apolitical, and he brushed aside concerns about Smartmatic's
"There is no voting system more secure than this one," Mugica boasted,
tapping a machine's screen during a demonstration in his sleekly furnished
A square piece of paper popped out of the computer, a physical record of
his vote. That, Mugica insists, is the system's primary safeguard against fraud:
A paper trail that allows for a recount of any contested election.
Voters must deposit the slip into a ballot box before they can retrieve
their IDs from polling officials.
The paper trail theoretically spares Smartmatic from a key complaint about
touchscreen machines in the United States. Those machines won't have paper
records in November, although a growing number of U.S. states will mandate them
in future elections.
Mugica, an engineering graduate from Caracas' Simon Bolivar University,
founded Smartmatic in 2000 with three other Venezuelans. The software firm
handles its finance and sales in Boca Raton but does most research and
development in Venezuela. It reported sales of $1.47 million for the six months
ending June 30, 2003, according to Dun & Bradstreet.
Mugica said the firm began developing its electronic voting system in
2001, inspired partly by Venezuela's 2000 elections. He said the data storage
and transmission will be encrypted, which should frustrate tampering.
But U.S. computer experts have found numerous security flaws in
touchscreen machines, including incorrect use of cryptography, said Aviel D.
Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
"Computers can be made to produce any outcome that you want without
anybody really knowing that's what was done," Rubin said.
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