Chronicles of an eighteen-hour working Sunday

Yours truly at the voting center. Photo Courtesy of Correo del Orinoco - en serio.
Rodrigo doing his thang. Photo Courtesy of Correo del Orinoco – en serio.

If you’re like most people, for you election day means queuing up, voting, then going back home to try to relax, at least up until it’s baranda time.

Not for me.

In each of the last eight elections I’ve left home at 5:00 am and gotten back at 1:00 am, hungry, bone tired and smelling like a metro station.

I mention this because Quico Toro’s post on Smartmatic touched a lot of nerves, setting off a, um, lively debate. Those brutal 18-hour days have led me to my own conclusions. For me, Quico is right, pero va preso.

Make no mistake about it, Venezuela’s electoral system is hopelessly rigged. And Smartmatic is a disaster. It’s just that the “rigging” does not happen at the e-vote. And Smartmatic isn’t a disaster for the reasons you think.

The electoral system is rigged because the governing party gets unlimited air-time and shamelessly raids state coffers for its campaign spending. Air time + Campaign cash = Votes. That’s a universal formula. Add to the mix opposition candidates banning and coercion, and you have the makings of a perfectly flawed system.

Quico is right about one thing, though: the machines have never tallied anything other than what the paper ballots show people voted for. Never, in any of the eight times I’ve been a witness in voting centers in Petare and other Miranda rural areas (Santa Lucia) has it been any other way. Nor has anyone produced any evidence of that happening anywhere else.

I remember one voting table where the machine showed Capriles had no votes. 0. Zero. Zilch. Nul points. That made me suspicious, of course, but we looked at the paper ballots one by one and it checked out. No one actually voted for Capriles at that table. It happens.

In Petare, I’ve been a volunteer for so many years now that I’m in pretty good terms with everyone, both chavista and opposition. These are mostly good folks. As a volunteer, your job consists mostly of setting up the voting center and running it, since many of the CNE’s (the Venezuelan Electoral Body) randomly picked folks don’t show up.

The most challenging part is actually getting the authorities to close the voting center at 6:00 pm. It’s clear that the voting center directors follow orders from some central agency. They typically refuse to close unless they are pressured at the voting center, regardless of the fact that there isn’t a soul outside.

Every election after the voting center is closed, a chavista crowd starts banging the voting center door demanding it be opened. One time they rammed a motorcycle in, and very violent folks came inside prompting the military to act, calling reinforcements.

Did I mention that by then you’ve already been working for more than 12 hours? Volunteers typically arrive at the polls before 6:00 am. By the time you manage to close the voting center, send all the data and put everything back in the boxes, it’s 10 pm. By closing time everyone is exhausted. No one wants their voting table to get audited.

But audit a sample we must. So you write your voting table’s number on a little piece of paper and drop it into a bowl. Then an “innocent hand” – usually a kid from the community – puts in his hand and pulls out some papers. When the center has an even number of voting tables, you audit half of them, when the number of voting tables is odd, you audit half plus one.

If your number is called, you and the peeps working with you have to go through the paper audit.

You groan. Now you’re looking at two more hours of work, minimum. No one wants to do it because there is never an issue!

What I find most annoying is that folks who demand 100% audit spend their election day on the the couch making bolitas de moco. Every person who demands for 100% of the comprobantes to be audited should spend the day as a volunteer.

And, seriously, even if 100% of the paper ballots were counted, how many of the Fraudmatic partisans would then accept the machines don’t change the vote?

None of this is to say the system is totally secure, it’s not. There is no real way to prevent double voting. Those people banging the doors demanding to vote after the center had closed? They might be voting for a second or third time for all I know. You have hundreds of folks going through your table and maybe thousands at any given voting center. Recognizing a dude or dudette it is pretty damn hard. The fact that the notebooks can’t be audited as the last presidential elections demonstrated makes that part of the process dumb, useless, and incredibly vulnerable.

This brings us back to Smartmatic. Watching @ElRui talking to @LuisCarlos, it’s clear Smartmatic thinks they make a badass product. They don’t. Their product sucks. On so many levels.

For one thing, the user interface is counterintuitive, even for tech-savvy young guys like me. Most of my day is spent explaining to people how to use the machine. Out of 500 people at a polls, I need to explain how the system works to at least 300. Many people just don’t want to bother with any of it. They come in, tell you who they want to vote for and ask you to do it. (That, btw, introduces a wrinkle on the “assisted voting” phenomenon a lot of people fail to grasp: there’s a demand side to it, as well as a supply-side.)

A system like this really ought to be intuitive, self-explanatory: good user interface design is all about dispensing with the need for explanations. By that standard, it’s insane how bad this product is.

There will be hundreds, thousands of voting tables without the benefit of a Rodrigo there to patiently explain Smartmatic’s baffling design choices to voters, and how do they get on?

But it’s not just that the user interface sucks big time, it’s that its product quality is horrible. When a machine breaks down (and they do, a lot) the whole system collapses. Sometimes it takes the whole day to get it fixed.

One infuriating issue that comes up election after election has to do with the way the machine produces the paper comprobantes that voters must then deposit into a ballot box: the machine pops out the paper and then, two seconds later, it cuts it so you can take it. But if the voter pulls on the paper before the machine cuts it, the thing jams! I had to tell 400+ folks that day to please wait til the paper was released.

That, my friends, is the definition of poor design.

Other issues? In some elections the ballot is so large and the cardboard covers on the machine are so small, that it’s crystal clear who’s voting for whom, since the MUD and GPP are located in very distant corners. Some people even keep a running tally. That’s probably more the fault of CNE than Smartmatic, but still.

This, for me, is the real reason to hate Smartmatic: not that they cheat, but that the product they peddle is ridiculously badly designed from a user standpoint, and shoddily put together to boot.

So Smartmatic’s system is a pain in the arse. What gets me is that it’s far from clear to me how it’s better than simple SAT-bubble style paper ballots that you drop in a scanner and get tallied right away, like we used to do. That’s intuitive – you have options with a circle next to them and a pencil. Simply black out the circle next to the option you like with the pencil, then drop the ballot in the ballot box. In the end you feed the ballots thru a scanner.

You wire the data and the results are added. Easy-pleasy.

It is worth mentioning that Smartmatic was granted the multimillion dollar contract to run our elections directly, a dedo, and not in an open bidding process. That raises a lot of eye brows, and Alek Boyd has pointed out major signs of corruption in the process where Smartmatic was chosen. These are things not mentioned in Luis Carlos’ interview. No one, til this day, knows what criteria Jorge Rodriguez and his team applied at the time. What other options did they consider or whether these were guys who they were “friends” with?

What this boils down to is that the Smartmatic machines’ tallying function are the least corrupt cog in a thoroughly fraudulent machine. Quico isn’t wrong, but he shouldn’t let his enthusiasm run away with him. Smartmatic sucks, and that tendencia is irreversible.