Venezuela: A rigged election uncovered thanks to electronic voting

By Areeq Chowdhury.

It’s not often that you hear applause for e-voting for strengthening the trust and security in elections, but in Venezuela this week we have seen precisely that.

In what is widely regarded as a controversial set of elections to vote in a new legislative body called the National Constituent Assembly which has the power to dissolve the existing opposition-led National Assembly, there has been disagreement between the results declared by the election authorities and the results recorded by the e-voting providers. As the election was boycotted entirely by the Venezuelan opposition due to them regarding the Assembly as ‘fraudulent’, the only measure of legitimacy or success for President Maduro’s government is the voter turnout. A high voter turnout would indicate support for the Constituent Assembly.

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council reported that more than 8 million voters turned out, equivalent to 42% of the electorate. However, in an unusual move, Smartmatic, the company which provides the e-voting technology in Venezuela, publicly disputed these figures claiming that they have been overstated by at least 1 million votes.

Smartmatic have provided e-voting technology, not to be confused with remote online voting, to Venezuela since 2004. This form of e-voting involves the use of touchscreen machines and electronic ballots at polling stations. The benefits of this system is that it helps ensure the accuracy of a vote count free from human error or low-skilled manipulation.

venezuela election
President Maduro has claimed victory despite the results being disputed.

Following the election, London-based Smartmatic’s CEO, Antonio Mugica, held a press conference to dispute the turnout figures being put out stating:

“We estimate the difference between the actual participation and the one announced by authorities is at least 1 million votes. Based on the robustness of our system, we know, without any doubt, that the turnout of the recent election for a National Constituent Assembly was manipulated.”

As someone immersed in the world of electronic voting, it is fascinating to see the divide in opinion on e-voting and the consequences for trust and security. Many countries which have opted to pursue forms of electronic voting have done so because of the lack of trust in paper-based voting systems which can in many cases be easily manipulated by corrupted or bought-off individuals at a low-level of complexity. Countries which have been hesitant towards the reform often take an opposite view placing all their trust in traditional, hand-counted and pencil-marked, paper ballots.

In the case of Venezuela, would we have known about the extent to which the election was manipulated or rigged had the system relied on paper ballots? The likelihood is that we would be oblivious. The reliability of the results would be dependent on the trust of corruptible individuals rather than the harder to corrupt mathematics underpinning electronic voting systems. If you’re doing your end of year accounts, do you trust your calculator or your brain? Do you use an Excel spreadsheet at work or do you write out your calculations with a pencil and notepad? It’s a similar concept when counting millions of votes.

There was a lot of social media hysteria recently following the hacks of US e-voting machines at the annual hackers’ conference, Defcon. It is easy to see, therefore, how and why people are hesitant when it comes to using computers in elections. However the reality is that, whilst there may well have been some important vulnerabilities highlighted by the Defcon hacks, there is a difference between successfully attacking an e-voting machine bought off eBay, and successfully attacking an e-voting machine during a live election environment with all the checks and balances in place. It is akin to letting a child break into a ballot box, or allowing a dog to eat a postal vote, and then subsequently claiming that the entire paper-based electoral system is vulnerable.

So, as a researcher, there is a lot of context to be absorbed and hype to be cut-through when it comes to looking at electronic voting. However, what is clear is that if it does turn out to be true that the Venezuelan election authorities are lying about the turnout figure, it will be thanks to verifiable electronic voting results that the truth came out – and isn’t that a strange thought in this day and age?

Areeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy.

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