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Fixing America's Broken Election

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Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, looking at the 2000 and 2004 voting havoc in the United States in general, but his home state in particular, examined the Venezuela voting process, and told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 24, 2004 that Americans could learn from Venezuela's process.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a non-partisan federal agency that advises the U.S. Election Commission, said last week that having no paper trail on touch screen machines erodes public confidence. Venezuela has it, and we should have it throughout the country.

The Venezuelan voting system proved itself over the weekend. In South America, as in many other countries, part of the election process is the post-voting accusations and, as in Mexico's case, a refusal to accept the results. This was the first Venezuelan election in Chavez's time where, at the end of the day, the opposition announced it was accepting the validity of the process.

This is no small achievement in a tumultuous coup-ridden country. The Venezuelan system is both low tech and high tech - some of it is not new - some of it is unique. It uses a paper ballot audit of a sophisticated electronic machine as well as thumbprints dipped in ink to prove the voter did not vote twice.

Venezuela's paper ballot audits of electronic machines are as good as any other known voting system. I saw them operating this past Sunday in Sanarae in the province of Lara five hours southwest of Caracas. The voters I spoke to, whether they be for or against Chavez, had faith in the ballot counting. Not only does the voting work, but the voters feel their votes are being protected. That may explain why 73% of Venezuelans voted, a percentage never reached in America, with its over 200 years of a democratic process. In the 2004 American percentage was only 55% which, by American standards, is high.

The voting system I monitored was newly created by Venezuela's National Electoral Council. The Council is a separate branch of government not under the authority or the political control or manipulation by executive or legislature branches. It is carefully selected, with nominations to the Commission coming from elected officials, academics, university and non-profits. Its present President has ten years of experience in voting systems. Both sides experiences satisfaction with the Council - America does not have a corresponding entity.

In addition to monitoring the vote tally and making sure that the proper apportionment between political opponents has been recorded, the Venezuelan system tries to ensure that no one can vote twice. First, each Venezuelan voter has an ID card that is checked against the registry in large polling places. Computers at the entrance record the thumbprint of each voter in the register, these are then stored in a separate data base and the election observers are notified if that thumbprint previously cast a ballot. At the smaller voting stations, there is no access to the central data section. The thumbprint cannot realistically be used to tell which candidates the voter chose.

The voter then goes into the voting booth. He pushes an electronic keyboard that brings up the picture of his candidate on a touch screen monitor. The screen then asks if it has the picture of the candidate he selected. When the voter pushes the yes button on the screen, he receives a paper ballot. He then takes the paper ballot, leaves the machine and puts it in a cardboard box. The electronic tally is on each machine. The tally is also transmitted over the Internet to a central place.

After he puts the ballot in the box, he goes to another desk where he puts his little finger in indelible ink to make sure he can be detected if he tries to vote again.

The paper ballot has printed material that does three things. First, it includes a code to make sure that paper ballot box hasn't been manipulated. Second, it tells the voter he has voted. Third, it indicates who he has voted for. It doesn't indicate who the voter is.

When polls close, that paper tally for that one machine is correlated against all the paper ballots put in a cardboard box by everyone at the polling place. Although statisticians say a 3% audit is more than sufficient, the Venezuelan Council went further: 54.3% of the machines, arbitrarily selected, have their tallies audited by comparing the paper ballots with the electronic tally.

No matter how small the town, the ballot box can only be opened at the end of the voting day if at least three people are present - a member of each party, and a member of the Venezuelan election commission. Prior to the election, the Venezuela election Committee chooses how many machines from which areas will be audited to arrive at the 54.3% figure of one ballot box from each polling stations that will be audited. After opening the ballot box, each of the three signs his or her name confirming the paper tally and the electronic tally. If the tallies match, they say so. If it does not, they note that. When the paper ballots are counted, each of the parties and the Council member has an opportunity to look at each paper ballot to make sure that it is correctly being characterized as a vote for one candidate or the other, that it has the code, and that, when they are all added up, conform to the tally on the electronic machine.

Venezuela last week was flooded with international observers from the EEU, the OAS, the Jimmy Carter Center, as well groups of judges and elected officials from throughout the world. The European Union Election Observation Committee, earlier in 2006, looking at the system, said, "The Venezuelan voting system possesses a number of features that are in line with the most advanced international standards of e-voting. In certain aspects, such as the paper trail audit, the system developed in Venezuela is probably the most advanced system in the world to date."

The Carter Center previously looked at the system during the 2004 failed referendum to recall Chavez. According to their report of that year, "The Carter Center concludes that the automated machines worked well and the voting results do reflect the will of the people."

I saw Venezuelan voters standing in long lines for up to three to four hours. Chavez's opposition, which for the past three months had been claiming there were frauds, accepted the results on election day evening, the first time that his opponents have done so. During the day they claimed various irregularities and machine breakdowns. I was at some of the polls the opposition said were not functioning properly. I saw no irregularities. The eight places I saw were parts of a system where the people felt their votes counted. The Venezuelan National Election Commission, all the international observers agreed, had run an honest presidential election.

Senator Nelson, the Democrat from Florida, the scene of much of the American voting irregularities in the past elections, knows what he is talking about when he asks us to look at the Venezuelan system. The high number of blank votes on electronic screens in the recent Broward and Miami-Dade House race there resulted in an abstention rate of 18%, far higher than in nearly any other American race. That figure, unchecked, undermines the vote. The most probably explanation is that votes were sent into an electronic black hole. As a result, Broward County is just about to ask the taxpayers to junk 6,000 election systems after only four years, thus admitting a $26,000,000 mistake. Undervotes, that is where the machine only records part of the ballot, is endemic in America. Only a paper system can stop it.

There are all sorts of other combined electronic-paper suggestions. The model we use need not be the exact same one as the Venezuelan government. But what is perfectly clear is that there must be pieces of paper tied to an electronic vote. Broward County in Florida is now looking at an Optiscan system. With Optiscan voters fill out their paper papers, the ballot is fed into a machine. The machine tabulates it, and if the voter has not voted for all the candidates, the machine points out to the voter where the defect is in his ballot and alerts the voter, who can then correct it.

The 73% figure shows that if people believe their vote counts, they will vote. If Venezuela can afford a paper audit that works, we can certainly spend the money to have a better system.

MARTIN GARBUS was an international election observer at the December 3, 2006 presidential election in Venezuela.