Smartmatic’s Null Vote Shame

How Smartmatic is trying to turn an election where its crap user interface disenfranchised more than 686,000 people into a PR win.


Check out the glossy PR being passed around by Smartmatic, the contractor whose hardware and software handled Venezuela’s legislative election. “Ultimately,” the company gloats “the success in Venezuela shows how technology can make elections more accurate, transparent and accessible.”

One number, though, slipped their PR department’s eagle eye: the staggering 686,119 null votes their crappy user interface generated.

That’s a scandal, the equivalent to having the whole of Barcelona, Venezuela’s 7th biggest city, struck off the voter rolls completely simply because you hired a bunch of incompetents to design the system. That’s one in 20 voters, or 15 times the number disenfranchised by the MIN-Unidad trick!

To give you an idea of just how bad it was, the circuit that decided the election was Aragua 3 (La Victoria), where the opposition’s Karin Salanova beat the government’s Rosa León to take the all important 112th seat by a mere 82 votes. In that same district, a staggering 15,992 votes were anulled, more than 10% of the total.

Remarkably, Nicolas Maduro is now using Aragua 3 to, in effect, cry fraud, saying the null votes cost the government the seat.

The really crazy part is, he may have a point.

As @Puzkas writes, Null Votes were much more prevalent in pro-government circuits than pro-opposition ones. That makes sense: the voting system is complicated, and the machines unforgiving. If you made any mistake in the convoluted voting procedure, the machines would just invalidate your vote before ever giving you a warning and a chance to fix it. (Correction: the machine does prompt you in certain circumstances, but the wording of the prompt is unclear.)

You’d expect less well educated voters to be especially prone to making those kinds of mistakes, and government supporters are less well educated than opositores. It seems at least probable that more of the 15,992 people in Aragua 3 whose votes were invalidated had intended to vote for PSUV than for the opposition.

What the government is doing, though, is conjugating fraud in the conditional tense: if we hadn’t insisted on calling this incompetently designed voting system the Best in the World and had instead demanded proper testing to ensure the machines tallies accurately reflected underlying voting intentions, then we would’ve gotten more votes. A llorar pa’l valle, mis panas.

There’s a real chance, though, that Smartmatic perpetrated a kind of hapless fraud on its own paymaster. Through the power of crap user interface design, el mejor sistema electoral del mundo might have gifted the 112th seat to the other side.

It’s like raaaaiiiiin, on your wedding day…


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  1. Also it’s relevant to mention that the opposition voter is predominantly young, with most of it voters coming from the range 18-40sh, while chavismo base is older, more prone to be pensionado gracias a chavez and of course less tech-savvy

  2. bullshit, it coud be fabricated evidence to nullify elections in certain districts…
    if the situations were reversed, we’ll probably never see this damning evidence released… just saying

  3. Aha! I view this as a transparent scheme to adjust the electoral result to the CC prediction! But it won’t work!

    Listen, if 56% of voters were voting MUD, and random votes were deleted by the software, then more MUD than opposition votes were deleted. The true MUD total should be 113 or higher, thereby driving the CC prediction further into the grasp of ignominy.

  4. What is surprising to me is not to hear this kind of news, that’s expected, but rather about how a company like Smartmatic still seems to have some sort of reputation in the developed world, just look at their portfolio (US, Belgium etc).

    It doesn’t really matter if Smartmatic is ill-intentioned or if its just the technology that is awful, that’s beyond the point, the core of the issue is that said company just seems to never be able to perform perfectly the task that it is paid to do. Any simple auditing will prove that the system is not reliable at all, yet it is still growing” in the business worldwide even after a vast and well-documented array of problems. It’s absurd!

    I’m not naive enough to think that their level of depravation is the same in the developed world and in the developing world, but for God’s sake: it’s still the same company, it should be punished somehow. It must be stopped! Elections are very serious business to be handled in this manner.

    • Marc, I find your comment to be mischievous, worse yet, venomous.

      You write: “…a company like Smartmatic still seems to have some sort of reputation”. – Well, YES, IT DOES. So what?

      “…or if its the technology that is awful…” –
      What IS AWFUL is your ‘very un-technological” statement. What CREDENTIALS do you have to dare to appoint yourself as JUDGE of a company’s technological creations, a company that by the way includes hundreds of professionals (including PhD’s) from the best universities? (unless in your “authoritative” opinion, Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, MIT, Purdue, Simon Bolivar and UCAB are also “awful” in technology).

      “…said company just seems to never be able to perform perfectly the task that it is paid to do” –
      No, you’re WRONG. What it never seems to achieve is to satisfy some “critics” who purport to be the REAL EXPERTS in voting systems, while in reality they’re just a bunch of BRAGGARTS who very obviously know nothing about what they’re talking of.

      “Any simple auditing will prove that the system is not reliable at all” –
      FOR YOUR INFORMATION, several audits are performed to “the system” before, during and after an election –in Venezuela and everywhere else, where REAL EXPERTS participate, pose tough questions and get satisfactory answers and evidences —including the source code, which another nitwit said was unavailable (which mus be true FOR HIM, as idiots don’t usually get access to such audits)– so, my dear Marc, you’re basing your arguments on filthy LIES.

      “…yet it is still growing in the business worldwide even after a vast and well-documented array of problems” –
      The ONLY problems that are “well-documented” are the vast array of lies, bullshit, false accusations, misleading statements, purposeful misinformation, and TONS OF VENOM from the fangs of an army of reptiles and parasites that have nothing useful to do or to share, like the infamous Alek Boyd, and like yourself.

      It is YOUR SPECIES who should be punished, not a reputable, serious, capable, and honest corporation. Who’s hiring you to write like that?

      (I have friends and fellow students who work there, I’ve met their bosses, and hence my opinions have some grounds, while yours have none.)

    • Yeah Right, I guess you haven’t follow or have no knowledge what happen with sequoia (no they were not banned)…And yes I guess if they have clients world wide, probably the world it is just that STUPID? Look for the picture of Obama voting for his reelction? Well Smartmatic (But of course you will have to know that in the US every circuit and every county and city could elect the company, or just paper votes to vote, so is not a national system, so if they were banned with sequoia, why Obama voted in 2012 with an Smarmatic machine?)

      By the way if you want read about the electoral system in Estonia (or maybe I could get the research for a PhD friend about it) It is one of the best and is WORSE EVOTE…

      And yes I know people there, as asdrubal said yes all are such stupid people and probably that is the reason the have grown as a company during 15 years, because the world is just stupid…

      Probably you could go to you tube and look up the hangout of Luis Carlos Diaz,and see for yourself, or ask people that has been witnesses in the electoral process…If thereis a problem is the system where people have to go to a fingerprint reading, that there is no education, the design of the ballot , that is CNE not smartmatic that decided it, as well that is the CNE that does not allow to count every vote for the conspiranoics…

      Really keep in mind that still there is more than 30% of people in Venezuela that love a ead comandante galactico

  5. Quico, you’re doing bad inferences. Taking your own example, in 2010, in Aragua 3, where PSUV won with 56.86%, there was 4,724 null votes (3,87 %). Now, MUD won with 48,52%, with 15,992 null votes (10,09 %).

    “You’d expect less well educated voters to be especially prone to making those kinds of mistakes, and government supporters are less well educated than opositores.”
    It is highly unlikely that Aragua 3 electors are now far “less well educated” (three time less educated?) now than five years ago. And people now is used to that crappy interface.

    The simplest explanation is that in a system where alternatives were banned (e.g. Marea socialista) and voting for small parties is de facto a null vote (malaportionment), people rejecting PSUV and MUD prefers to show inconformity voting null (no blank vote case in Smartmatic machines).

    @Econ_Vzla is doing this analysis in

    • The point about horrible interface design remains: you consistently get *much* higher null votes in complicated parliamentary elections than in simple presidential ones. That strongly suggests a lot of these parliamentary null votes are involuntary. (Of course, it can do no more than “suggest” – those smartmatic machines do not include an fMRI to allow us to read the minds of people as they’re anulling their votes.)

      Whether it’s because changes in alliances or because voters don’t follow complicated elections, the implication remains: hundreds of thousands of people who intend to vote for one side or the other aren’t able to, because the system doesn’t warn them that they’re about to throw away their vote.

      If your software is impeding people from expressing their democratic will, it’s disenfranchising them. A voting system has to be idiot proof for the simple reason that most voters are idiots.

    • I agree about problems in the interface, and share others concerns about Smartmatic, starting by the fact that the source code is proprietary and cannot be directly reviewed.

      My point is that *the increment* of null votes is a real expression of the people’s will.

      In 2010, PPT won 3.14% of popular vote, doing explicit campaign against polarisation. You can expect that much of those orphans ni-nis will not simply disappear, and probably new ones will born due to a sort of “affective impossibility” to vote for long-time detested opposition in disappointed chavistas.

      I thing a little exercise could be interesting: Measuring correlation (by circumscriptions) between PPT and other ni-ni votes and null votes increment.

  6. Maybe many disenchanted former regime supporters wanted to avoid been pressured into the polling booths if they openly abstained from voting so they did the next best thing , they went to the booths and deliberated voted null , that might explain why the null votes are concentrated in former Chavista strongholds. Of course the voting system itself might have proben too difficult to handle for intellectually challenged people ( of which there is an abundant portion in the Chavista camp) , lets not forget that the average IQ in Venezuela is 84 , lots of dumb people arround……..!!

  7. I don’t think the pro government are less educated voters, they are more likely to participate in simulacros, and are better informed.

  8. But they can use a blackberry and a vergatario like a third limb? I agree that it was probably largely intentional. I’ve heard chavistas say they can’t vote for maduro, but won’t vote for oposixion.

  9. Remember, there is a big element of loyalty in chavismo: (they helped me out this or that time, with a house or food or medical treatment, how can I now vote for oppo? I’d be scum).

  10. I think a substantial number of null votes are intentional. You are pressured to a voting center, don’t want to or don’t want to be seen voting “abajo, a la izquierda,” and you intentionally mess up your vote.

  11. In 2000, here in FL, in Duval County, Democratic Party activists shuttling voters to the polls in vans instructed the voters to “vote on every page.” But because some lists for specific offices went over one page, folks would accidentally vote for two candidates for the same office, nulling their vote. 27,000 ballots were rejected, the highest of any county in the state. Because we were using punch cards, there was no way to alert voters to their mistake. It seems nullification would be one of the number one reasons to have Smartmatic.

  12. One problem with electronic voting is that you can’t undo an error if you make a mistake. In paper elections if you make a mistake before putting the ballot in the box you just give it back, it’s destroyed and you get a new one.

    • In this system you can make a mistake and revert it.

      It’s only after you press a confirmation button that the vote is printed and then of course there’s no going back. You also get a chance to review your selection on the screen before printing.

  13. I do agree that the fulano tarjetón is horribly designed, but isn’t that the CNE responsibility?

    I could guess smartmatic plays a role along with the cne in choosing the right amount of “clickiness” of the underlying button for the board for example. But I was paying attention to it given all the information running that day and actually found it quite right.

    The stupidest design problem I could see was the size of the button area. I don’t think whoever was in charge of it had any notion of ui design, but again, I don’t think that’s on smartmatic.

    Other than that I found the hardware/software to be adequate although it could be faster, sure, but again, probably smartmatic would be thrilled to have a new contract from the cne to update to faster hardware.

    And that’s my Amazon review of the smartmatic machine.

    So unless smartmatic is making the software run slow on purpose so we complain and make the cne give them another juicy contract (possible, but we would need proofs) I don’t get why you are blaming smartmatic here instead of the CNE.

  14. What the government is doing, though, is conjugating fraud in the conditional tense: if we hadn’t insisted on calling this incompetently designed voting system the Best in the World and had instead demanded proper testing to ensure the machines tallies accurately reflected underlying voting intentions, then we would’ve gotten more votes. A llorar pa’l valle, mis panas.

    I am reminded of the recount in Florida for the 2000 Presidential vote. A number of ballots had been thrown out for being improperly marked. Democrats were saying that those thrown-out ballots should be interpreted, that one could interpret the thrown-out ballots to discern who the voter had intended to vote for. After all, voters shouldn’t be penalized for difficult to understand ballots. What made this a howler was that Democrats were crying for interpreting these difficult to understand ballots in Democrat-run counties, where Democrats designed the ballots.

    That changed me from voting Third Party to voting Republican.

  15. If we look at the circuits where the number of null votes was greater than the difference between the votes we’ll have an idea where a review could change the elected Diputado. out of 87 total nominal circuits 25 had this problem that is almost a third of the circuits (29%). Of the 25 such circuits 8 were won by opposition wins and 17 were won by Chavista.

  16. Varias cosas que me molestan de este artículo, pues son mentiras que no tienen nada que las sustente como argumentos creíbles:

    1) “El diseño de la interfaz es una basura”, sólo porque hayan habido 690mil votos nulos no quiere decir que la interfaz sea la culpable de dichos votos nulos. La interfaz es simple y bastante directa en cuanto a la escogencia de los candidatos. Para poder indicar lo dicho deberías sustentarse en una estadística en la que sin sesgo se observase una distribución pareja entre los distintos circuitos electorales y tipos socioeconómicos, porque si la interfaz es mala, la culpa del error no se debe a los electores.

    2) “El sistema es complicado y las máquinas imperdonables”, la interfaz incluye la opción del voto entubado, el cual fue la opción aplastante entre las distintas permutas posibles; así que de dónde sale esa afirmación? Adicionalmente, la máquina indica que faltan N votos por emitir o que la selección es inválida, qué otro mensaje crees que deba emitir una máquina cuya única finalidad es indicarle al elector que tiene que pulsar sobre N canditatos y una tarjeta electoral y luego darle al botón VOTAR? Vale decir que el sistema es exactamente el mismo que se usa en todas las elecciones que recuerdo, si fuera tan complicado por qué antes no hubo tantos votos nulos?

    3) “Los sectores de la población pro-chaviztas son menos educados y por tanto más proclives a equivocarse en las elecciones” Ésta es la peor de las afirmaciones de tu artículo, porque dejando atrás el sesgo despectivo; qué prueba tienes de que esos votos nulos no hubieren sido intencionados? No es más factible la hipótesis de que habiéndose aplicado el 1×10 en dichos circuitos prochaviztas, los electores intencionalmente hubieren votado nulo para no votar por la oposición pero tampoco por candidatos chaviztas en los que no se sentían representados? No es más inteligente desde un punto de vista del elector y sociológico el votar nulo que el votar por una opción que no te represente? Has meditado acerca de la relevancia que tiene desde el punto de vista de la camarilla y bases del propio PSUV la prevalencia de votos nulos en circuitos prochaviztas?

    Francisco, el 6D dejó a muchos ciegos y a otros tantos sordos. Pero también parece que a otros cuantos los dejó ebrios porque mucho de lo que se dice de las elecciones parece que se estuviera escuchando dentro de un botiquín.

    Por último Francisco, 690mil votos en esta elección no representaban 690mil electores. Tú bien sabes que en estas elecciones cada elector debía emitir entre un mínimo de 2 y un máximo de 4 votos (1 lista y N nominales), de media eso serían como 2,5 votos por la prevalencia de circuitos uninominales y plurinominales sobre los binominales.

    Por otra parte, los votos nulos no fueron una cantidad enorme como pretendes hacer ver, apenas hubo 1,96% de votos nulos; y ese 1,96% de votos nulos tampoco se traduce linealmente en electores, porque para que tu argumento inicial fuera cierto, deberían haberse producido votos nulos preferentemente en los circuitos plurinominales, donde la elección era más complicada, pero la mayoría de ellos ocurrió en los circuitos uninominales, donde sólo había que votar por 1 nombre y 1 partido.

    De modo que echa números de nuevo y reescribe tus conclusiones.

    • Luis: an interface that allows 690,000 null votes without an explicit decision by the voter to mark his vote as null is a shame for any electoral system.

      You might think the voters would be to blame because you had no trouble voting. I do interface design for a living, and we have a motto here: “the user is not like me”. Systems designers have the inescapable responsibility to test their interface with real users before launching a product, address the problems, and test again. It’s *their job*, damnit. How many null votes do you think they would’ve uncovered if they had tested the interface with a significant population sample before the elections, or if they had coded a website with the exact same interaction flow and made it public, or if they had made their interface code open source? We’ll never know, because they didn’t do any of this, but my professional estimate is HELLA LOT.

      The problem is that Smartmatic has been a state-sponsored monopoly that has had carte blanche in designing and implementing Venezuela’s electoral system. Since their directive is probably swimming in petrodollars, they don’t have many incentives to make the system work for, y’know, the millions of people that are going to use it.

      I would love for you to prove me wrong and point me to the countless studies they’ve conducted about how the archetypical Venezuelan finds these machines a joy to use and how their voting intentions are always perfectly captured by them. But they don’t exist, because they did a hack job.

      • Lo siento Alejandro pero tu comentario no tiene nada que ver con la realidad del asunto.

        Smartmatic no diseña la interfaz a su antojo, la diseña de acuerdo a unos parámetros definidos por la ley y el reglamento de la elección. No puede poner opciones no definidas en la ley, las soluciones al problema de la intencionalidad o no, sólo serían dirimibles modificando la ley electoral para:

        a) establecer el Voto blanco como una opción de determinación de la voluntad política del elector, con sus debidas consecuencias

        b) establecer una clara diferencia entre el voto no emitido por un votante presente y la abstención.

        Muchos votos nulos (1) fueron realmente votos no emitidos (debiste escoger 3 y escogiste sólo 2, (2) muchos fueron por gente que escogió opciones que fueron eliminadas a última hora de la elección, (3) muchos fueron porque presionaron VOTAR sin seleccionar un cargo por error, y (4) muchos porque hicieron esto último de manera deliberada. La interfaz sólo puede resolver el caso 3. Las demás las resuelve el sistema legal o son debidas únicamente al elector.

    • As a side note, Luis, you have a point about people intentionally voting null for various reasons (intimidation, not identifying with chavismo or the MUD). The vote is secret, and many of these people likely won’t share their stories, so we’ll never know the full truth.

      That still doesn’t excuse Smartmatic for doing a terrible job at interface design. As Rodrigo’s great follow-up article suggests, the machine should not allow a null vote unless it’s explicitly requested.

  17. Oh C’mon!!!
    I’ts ok to blame de UI for the quantity of Null votes, but to blame it for impacting more on the chavistas votes???, Nahhhh, and by 20%???.

    C’mon, we all know there were A LOT of chavistas being forced to vote, some of them voted for MUD, and some voted Null. Why is your explanation better than this one?

    And BTW, take out that 20% difference in null votes, and you get a reasonable data to make an argument againts the smarmatic UI.

  18. How the heck could Carter or anyone make any kind of positive comments on this voting system?

    Infuriating. It’s truly insane how many “null votes” are. Where I live no one has ever even heard of the thing “null voto”. If you don’t vote properly it won’t let you submit and gives you instructions, and you can call for help. It’s really simple.,

  19. El verdadero problema con los votos nulos es que eran, junto al gerrymandering y los muertos votantes, la compra de votos, las amenazas y muchas otras “triquiñuelas” más, OTRA parte más del fraude para que el chavizmo “ganara” de nuevo.

    Los ladillas del gomierdo están que echan espuma por sus hocicos porque les salió el tiro por la culata.

  20. Venezuela voting should not be complicated. The presidential election is simple. What is the big deal about legislative elections? I see two problems; perhaps there are more.

    1) The multiplicity of political parties. Personally, I cannot see how a “party” with minor support, which never elects anyone to office, can persist for decades, or why there are multiple major parties with comparable programs (AD, Copei, PV, PJ?). I note that Venezuela allows multiple parties to endorse a single candidate. This practice is followed in New York state, which alone in the U.S. has multiple secondary parties, so that may be a reason. I favor significant (though not draconian) requirements for ballot access – it keeps the cranks, cults, vanity candidates, and other riff-raff out.

    2) The separate votes for party list. One suspects a fair number of voters aren’t sure what this is for.

    3) More than one seat per electoral district. This always confuses voters.

    Here in Chicago, we have very long and complex ballots, covering both sides of a 28cm x 43cm sheet (a “bedsheet” ballot). Yet we have very few spoiled ballots. The electronic voting stations do not allow an invalid vote to be cast. (A null vote is valid, but must be explicitly chosen.) Ironically, the e-voting equipment here is supplied by Sierra Elections, which was and may still be a subsidiary of Smartmatic.

  21. Francisco Toro: YOU ARE A CONSUMMATE IDIOT. Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that those null votes probably were made null ON PURPOSE by disgruntled chavistas who were forcibly herded to voting centers and threatened to vote “correctly” –or else? And qualifying chavistas as too stupid or incompetent to deal with a “too sophisticated” machine is not only FALSE, but also disparaging to people who ARE NOT so dumb as you conclude.

    FURTHER: you say “the voting system is complicated, and the machines unforgiving” — BULLSHIT! it would take a real MORON to think that way after voting with such a simple interface, a lot simpler than dealing with an ATM to get cash.

    By the way, DID YOU VOTE IN VENEZUELA in Dec. 6, or are you a resident of FINLAND? I ask because you write as if you NEVER had used a Smartmatic voting machine, and you are only repeating what other morons say.

    I’m sick and tired of supposed ‘opositores’ that have cried “ELECTRONIC FRAUD!” for years, with the obvious consequence of discouraging voters, but based in ludicrous “Hacker Theories” fueled by their sheer IGNORANCE. This has been settled now, hopefully forever: MACHINES DON’T LIE, period. The liars are nitwits just like you.

    And last but not least, your gratuitous attack seems to be “sponsored” — WHO is paying you? Your “article” reeks of some obscure, hidden interests. In fact, it stinks!!

    • settle down there buddy! remember to breathe. The interesting thing is that now Chavistas like Jorge Ramirez are claiming that La Unidad gamed the system somehow – so now who’s making “ludicrous “Hacker Theories” fueled by their sheer IGNORANCE”?

  22. This was, to a certain extent, poetic justice, if indeed Chavismo was hurt by Chavista machines.

    For anyone who does a little Googling on the Olivetti/Dominion. Sequoi machines, overnight deal of at least 96 Million bucks, and then some, and the bolichicos that own the Venezuela obscure company, that now disguises as Dutch or even British……. you would be highly suspicious. Secret source code, very easy to hack with malicious software, as has been proven by many computer science scholar specialists over and over. or ask Alek Boyd about it.

    This is why Chavezmatic was banned in the USA. This is why no one in Europe, except the dumb Estonians, still use electronic voting, as opposed to good ‘ole manual voting. And this is especially true on 3rd world, under-educated, corrupt countries like Vzla, where too much technology lends itself to massive fraud.

    • Really, I think you should read about the estonian electoral system. It is a really good one. There is research about it. And well yes read everything from one source. I am not saying alex boyd is wrong but some things are just way too much telenovela script

  23. Every day the goverment’s unscrupulous caraetablimo reach ever higher heights.

    a llorar pal valle le dijeron a la oposición en 2013, pero conociendo al cne, tsj etc que tenemos, supongo que algunos circuitos votaran otra vez.


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