Venezuela uses what has been referred to as the most secure voting system in the world. Its Smartmatic voting machines are theoretically tamper-proof, requiring biometric voter authentication twice during the process. The system operates offline during the time votes are cast, so any direct attempts by hackers to change votes are rendered ineffective. The machines generate paper copies of votes, which are placed in a secure lockbox and counted manually multiple times for verification. Voter-verified paper trails are generated in the form of take-home receipts. Finally, the system is auditable at every stage of the vote.
On the surface, it is difficult to see how the voting process could be more secure. Yet despite this impressive level of security, Venezuelans are violently protesting in the streets less than a year after the vast majority apparently elected President Nicolas Maduro using these highly secure Smartmatic machines.
This begs the question: How did Maduro go from winning with almost 70 percent of the vote one year to hanging onto his presidency by a thread the next? The short answer is that Maduro never had the support of the people to begin with, and that his second term was the result of a fraudulent election.
In order to understand how this came about, a short recap of recent history is in order.
Venezuela has been in a state of disarray for years as political protesters and national police continue to clash in the streets over economic and political crises. The unrest began with the controversies leading up to and culminating in two national elections: one in 2017 for the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) and another in 2018 for the presidency.
The inciting incident for all of this political chaos occurred in 2015. Maduro was in his first term as president and his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, had majority control of the unicameral NCA. In anticipation of the 2017 NCA vote — which Maduro’s party was sure to lose — Maduro engaged in an eleventh-hour power grab. Using the outgoing, lame-duck assembly made up of regime loyalists, he filled 13 seats of the Venezuelan Supreme Court with allies. The court — now in Maduro’s pocket — quickly approved a massive expansion of executive power and stripped opposition leaders of their seats in the assembly, thereby preventing a supermajority opposition from challenging Maduro’s agenda.
Meanwhile, throughout the country, violence and hunger ran rampant, inflation skyrocketed, and Maduro refused and even sabotaged humanitarian aid from what he considered to be hostile nations. Finally, in 2016, opposition leaders demanded a recall referendum against Maduro. However, Maduro’s loyal National Electoral Council canceled the vote, disregarding its constitutional duties as an independent branch of government.
Following this series of dubious decisions, Maduro lost the trust and respect of his people. On April 19, 2017, more than 1.2 million Venezuelans flooded the streets and formed what is now known as the “Mother of all Marches.” Yet the election for NCA went ahead that year as planned. The outcomes were not at all what the Venezuelan people expected.
The 2017 NCA election used the highly secure Smartmatic voting machines. However, after the elections, Smartmatic CEO Antonio Mugica held a news briefing where he revealed that, according to the company’s audit data, the election was manipulated by as many as 1 million votes.
But how could this be? Aren’t Smartmatic’s machines tamper-proof?
The answer is that sophisticated security is simply not enough to protect elections from corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. In this case, unchecked government officials loyal to Maduro were responsible for releasing the vote count and verifying the election. Not even paper trails and biometric data can compel honesty when a country lacks appropriate checks on political power.
Not surprisingly, after Mugica’s reveal, protests erupted once again demanding another vote be held. Maduro and the National Electoral Council did not comply. And so began another wave of violent uprisings that continue. While no proof exists, it is widely speculated that Maduro engaged in the same malicious tactics during his re-election. In fact the Lima Group, the United States, and others refuse to certify the election due to speculation that the Maduro regime manipulated the votes (again).
A secure election system did not save Venezuela from the dire political straits in which it now finds itself. The absence of checks and balances, combined with a lack of strong democratic institutions and norms, allowed corrupt politicians to rise to the top and cling to power.
To reverse this trend, the country needs to recruit honest leaders and civil servants who will conduct legitimate elections and have the results independently verified by a trustworthy third party, like the United Nations. Only with that kind of confidence in their elections can the Venezuelan people begin to heal their government and establish lasting democracy.