It’s not a topic I find very productive, but sooner or later I have to address it in every election cycle. Not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t ask me: Don’t you think Chávez is just going to steal the election?
The answer is: obviously!
But it’s also: I really doubt it.
Because when we talk about electoral fraud, we’re really talking about a couple of different things:
- Campaign fraud, where state resources are mobilized en masse to support the government’s candidate, creating a grossly uneven playing field.
- Numerical fraud, where more people vote for Henrique Capriles than for Hugo Chávez on October 7th, but CNE declares Chávez the winner.
We’ve said enough about campaign fraud that we probably don’t need to go over it again. Campaign fraud is out in the open – entirely plain to anyone with working eyes and firing synapses. And it’s no small matter: given the unrestrained abuse of state power that has marked this campaign, a Chávez victory cannot be considered “free and fair” even if there is no numerical fraud on the day.
Sadly, campaign fraud is just sort of a given at this point, and it’s not really what people have in mind when they ask about Chávez “stealing the election.” What they mean is numerical fraud, and here, again, I think we need some conceptual precision.
Within numerical fraud, there are two variants:
- Stealth Numerical Fraud, where the government steals the election while successfully covering up its tracks.
- Open Numerical Fraud, this is the Burma Scenario where the evidence of fraud is plain to see, a naked power-grab with no plausible deniability.
A lot of conspiracy theorizing gets thrown around about Stealth Numerical Fraud, none of it strikes me as convincing. Again, a couple of different theories make the rounds, so let’s take them in turn:
On the one hand, you hear stories about “Tallying Fraud” – with the machines somehow screwing up the sums on purpose to favor Chávez (in some variants, with help from that super-suspicious underwater cable to Cuba.) On the other, you hear about massive ballot stuffing through a carefully planned out conspiracy to register millions of non-existent people on the Electoral Registry and having them turn out en masse for Chávez on the day.
Every election cycle, it seems, I have to put up this set of slides to explain why it’s so hard to pull off an tallying fraud given the system we have. Basically, you need to fake “triple congruence” between the machine tally, the CNE tally, and the audit tally, and that’s virtually impossible to do if there are witnesses on hand:
Long story short: more than half of the voting machines have their totals audited, in public, through a manual count on the night of the vote at every single voting center. The opposition is engaged in a vast effort to ensure it has witnesses in all, or almost all polling stations, including all the “problem” centers from past elections, so we will have those actas.
It should be stressed that no evidence of a break in Triple Congruence has ever been produced in an election with 54% of actas hand audited. In past elections, I’ve offered to mail a crisp, new $100 bill to the first person who shows me evidence of a numerical disparity between a given table’s acta de totalización, its acta de auditoría and the total CNE reports for that center. That bill is still sitting pretty in an envelope on my desk.
The takeaway: Any systematic disparity between the totals the machines print out at the end of voting, the totals they transmit to CNE HQ in Caracas and the hand audit is going to be immediately evident.
At that point we’re straight back in the Burma Scenario. Tibisay Lucena might get up at 2 a.m. on October 8th and announce any result she wants, but if that result doesn’t match the machine tallies and the audit tallies, it’s not going to be possible to cover that up.
That leaves the stories you hear about an Electoral Registry weighed down with millions of ghost voters, but here I find the stories half-baked and the evidence very weak indeed.
On the one hand, what serious quantitative work has been done on the structure of Venezuela’s Electoral Registry fails to turn up any evident red flags – yes, Venezuela has a relatively high proportion of adults registered to vote, but that’s exactly what you’d expect given a concerted government program to issue everyone a cédula and CNE’s aggressive voter registration drive. And while no one doubts that the REP is fairly noisy – with thousands of deceased people still on the rolls, and a good many fishy naturalizations in there – that’s not the same as a sprawling conspiracy to add millions of voters to the roll.
But ultimately the reason the Millions of Ghost Voters hypothesis fails to impress me is down to the unlikely logistics implied. This is worth a bit of an aside, so bear with me:
Venezuela’s voting system would require each “ghost voter” to be issued a National ID card, since you can’t unlock the voting machine unless a warm body turns up holding the plastified cédula of a person registered to vote in that place. Presumably, a single chavista would have to hold a number of these I.D. cards, then physically turn up at a number of voting centers on the day of the vote.
Now, let’s say chavismo wants to add 2 million votes to its tally. How many times can a single person vote in a day? Ten times? We’re then talking of a conspiracy involving 200,000 people, each with ten cedulas stuck away under the mattress. 20 times? OK, now it’s “just” 100,000 people involved, but each of them is sitting on twice the number of incriminating ghost cédulas.
Now, here’s how I see it: chavismo couldn’t even find 32 rock-solid, dependable a prueba de todo people to sit on the Supreme Tribunal! In recent years, two Supreme Tribunal Magistrates have gone rogue and started collaborating with the DEA. That’s 6.25% of the tribunal!
Now, you’d think that those 32 magistrates would be much more closely vetted for ideological conformity than 100,000-200,000 ghost-cédula holders needed to make this conspiracy work. So a 6.25% defection rate should be a lower bound for the defection rate we might expect to see from these people. By that reckoning, we should have 6,250 turncoat ex-conspirators banging down the doors of Globovision trying to be photographed with their 20 fake cédulas, or alternatively 12,500 disgruntled former-conspirators posting scans of their 10 fake cédulas up on Facebook.
But say we’re off by a factor of 10. Still, we should be looking at hundreds of ghost-cedula holders blowing the whistle. Even if chavismo is 100 times more successful at vetting its Ghost Cédula voters than its TSJ magistrates, we should still see between 62 and 125 people blowing the whistle.
Mind you, if even one such person had come forward, the story would be all over the news. The wires would be running with it. You’d never hear the end of it on Caracas Chronicles.
But somehow, the Ghost-Cédula Conspiracy is a Perfect Conspiracy. Chavismo was 6,250 times more careful in vetting its Ghost-Cédula Conspirators than it was in vetting its Supreme Tribunal Magistrates. Not a single one of them has an escuálida aunt who stumbled on his fake cédulas and dropped them off at El Universal’s newsroom. Not one of them has a vindictive-ex who decided to get back at them by posting his fake cédulas on Facebook. Not one of them worked for a state company that hasn’t had its Collective Bargaining Agreement renewed and is so mad that contractual commitments aren’t being honored that he decided to bolt along with his little haul of cédulas. Not one!
You see where I’m going with this. I just don’t believe in conspiracies that involve more than a handful of people – and when you’re positing a perfect conspiracy demanding the absolutely perfect adherence to plan of tens or hundreds of thousands of people…Venezuelan people, para más colmo. Suffice it to say that if it was happening, there would be evidence. But there is no evidence, ergo…
For those reasons, my assessment then is that Stealth Numerical Fraud is near impossible, at least on a big enough scale to tip the outcome.
This leaves the possibility of Open Numerical Fraud – numerical fraud that’s unembarrassed about its own lack of plausible deniability. There is definitely a possibility that chavismo will try this, but the risks involved are simply massive. Whether Chávez could find enough support in the Armed Forces to pull it off is something that clearly keeps him up at night.
But even if he could, it would mean shedding the last vestige of democratic legitimacy, and ruling as an acknowledged despot. It would destabilize the regime on a lasting basis, badly undermine its capacity to project power beyond Venezuela’s borders, and in the context of unknowable military allegiances could even set the stage for internal armed conflict.
That isn’t to say they wouldn’t try it. I’m sure they’re at the very least scenario planning it, and that Chávez’s repeated warnings that the opposition will cry fraud in October are at least in part designed to bolster its chances of success. But it is to say that the risks are such that chavismo is willing to do almost anything to avoid having to play this card.
Which brings us back to the ventajismo angle. There’s a reason chavismo has cranked up the campaign fraud machine to the crazy extent that he has. He knows Stealth Numerical Fraud is off the table, and he knows Open Numerical Fraud is a terrible option for him. He’d much, much rather just get the votes on the day and be done with it.
Because he knows that if he doesn’t, all bets are off.