Exit polls in Venezuela
By Michael Barone

"Were NY Pollsters Just Playing a Joke on Chavez?" That was the typically cheeky headline on an item about the Venezuela election in The Hotline political digest (nationaljournal.com) this week. The item quoted a press release from the polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland Assoc. saying, "Exit Poll Results Show Major Defeat for Chavez." The release, dated 7:30 p.m., said, "With Venezuela's voting set to end at 8 p.m. EST according to election officials, final exit poll results from Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, an independent New York-based polling firm, show a major victory for the 'Yes' movement, defeating Chavez in the Venezuela presidential recall referendum." The poll showed 59 percent in favor of recalling Chavez, 41 percent against.

The next morning, Chavez was declared the winner by an almost exact opposite margin. "About 58 percent said 'no' to a recall, while 42 percent said 'yes,'" wrote the Washington Post.

The Hotline was evidently having a little fun twitting a polling firm. But was the result as clear as they—and official election observer Jimmy Carter—thought? There is good reason to believe it was not. In fact, it's something of a scandal that American news media have been taking the official vote count in Venezuela at face value. There is very good reason to believe that the exit poll had the result right, and that Chavez's election officials—and Carter and the American media—got it wrong.

Let us look at the reasons.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has been running an authoritarian regime. By various means he has taken control of the legislature, the courts, the armed services and the police. His thugs have been intimidating and even killing the regime's opponents. The literature on this is voluminous, but consider these reports from the Wall Street Journal: www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110005494 and www.opinionjournal.com/wsj/?id=110005478. Chavez is an ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro and an enemy of the United States, and he has shown no commitment to democratic principles. He sought to block the referendum by extralegal means and, having failed at that, resorted to intimidation to win it. There is no reason to believe that he would stop at election fraud.

One weapon against such fraud is the exit poll. As Doug Schoen of Penn Schoen points out, his firm has conducted exit polls in Mexico and, just a few days ago, in the Dominican Republic, which produced results very close to the election results. His partner Mark Penn points out that the firm conducted two previous exit polls in Venezuela, both of which were on the mark. Warren Mitofsky's firm, Mitofsky International, has produced exit polls with similar results in Mexico and Russia. Mitofsky recalls that in 1994, Mexican President Carlos Salinas, seeking credibility with foreign investors for that year's Mexican elections, asked him for advice on what to do. Allow independent exit polls, Mitofsky advised, sponsored by the media, and allow the results to be announced soon after the voting. Mitofsky's exit poll results, announced soon after the polls closed, did in fact come close to the official results, as did another Mitofsky poll in 2000. More important, they provided independent confirmation of the fairness of the count.

Interestingly, Mitofsky points out that Jimmy Carter has opposed independent exit polls in countries where he has observed elections. In 1994, Mitofsky says, he persuaded South Africa's election authorities from allowing exit polls. As a result, there was considerable confusion and skepticism in the course of the five-day election process. Nevertheless, the chief South African election official tried to persuade Mexico not to allow exit polls. Salinas, fortunately, showed better judgment.

In Venezuela, Schoen's firm was hired by businessmen who were almost surely opponents of Chavez. The Chavez regime intimidated local interviewing firms, who refused to provide interviewers for Penn Schoen at the polls. As a result, the firm trained volunteers. Critics of the firm might argue that these volunteers, undoubtedly mostly anti-Chavez, may have tried to present a false result.

But that would in fact be difficult to do. Mitofsky points out that in countries emerging from autocracy into democracy, about 90 percent of voters approached by exit pollsters agree to participate. That is almost double the rate in the United States. Moreover, exit pollers work in teams; there would have to be massive collusion for them to produce fraudulent results. The Penn Schoen exit poll was conducted at about 200 polling places and produced more than 20,000 responses. Changing those results from something like 42-58 (the Chavez announced figure) to 59-41 would be quite a feat. The firm employed supervisors to make sure the polling was done right. And its results by precinct can be checked against the official results reported for that precinct.

In contrast, it would be far easier, given the touch-screen voting method and central tabulation used in Venezuela, for the central counting center to falsify the results. All you would have to do is program the computer to count every sixth "yes" vote as a "no." That would transform a 59-41 vote to 42-58. And the results would still show pro-Chavez areas voting for him and anti-Chavez areas going the other way—just by different margins.

Jimmy Carter did not remain in Venezuela long after the polling and, after a superficial look at the central counting center, pronounced the election fair and the result accurate. He could not have determined whether the counting computer was misprogrammed. Chavez had every motive for cheating: polls before the election mostly showed him under 50 percent, and he should have reasonably concluded that those not for him were against. Adjusting the count was one sure way to win.

By way of comparison, Penn Schoen has no motive whatever for cheating. It is a reputable American firm in a competitive business. Over more than 20 years it has worked for successful American politicians like Bill Clinton in 1996, Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2001, Michael Bloomberg in 2001 and many others. I have had experience, as a political consultant and a political writer, dealing with Penn Schoen during that whole time, and have found the firm to be reliable and fully observant of professional standards. They are high on my list of Democratic, Republican and independent polling firms whose numbers I trust and whose professional integrity I respect. Penn and Schoen are not likely to squander a hard-won good reputation to please a client in a foreign country where they are not likely to work again any time soon.

Schoen has little doubt what happened. "I think it was a massive fraud," he told me. "Our internal sourcing tells us that there was fraud in the central commission." This was not the first time he has encountered such things. "The same thing happened in Serbia in 1992, by [President Slobodan] Milosevic. He did it again in the local elections in 1996. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people died. Had he been caught [in this fraud] in 1992, this would not have happened."

In Venezuela this year, as in Serbia in 1992, I think it's overwhelmingly likely that the exit poll was far closer than the officially announced results to the way people actually voted.

Unhappily, the prospects for Venezuela are not much better than they were for Serbia. The Chavez regime has been given a patina of respectability by Jimmy Carter and the New York Times editorial page that it almost certainly does not deserve. Warren Mitofsky was not involved in Venezuela, and is a competitor of Penn Schoen, but he draws similar conclusions to Schoen's. "I find it extraordinary that, with only one exit poll and no quick count, people are willing to take one side's word," he told me. "This doesn't smell good."

Independent exit polls are one of the guarantors of democracy in countries emerging from or under authoritarian rule. Political junkies may think it amusing that there is such a wide discrepancy between an exit poll and official results. But for people in Venezuela and perhaps in other parts of Latin America it's more likely to be tragic.


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