On ‘Election’ Day, Nobody Voted Because Nobody was Voting

Carlos Hernández paints a vivid picture of “election” day in Ciudad Guayana —a day when even people who kind of wanted to vote didn’t, because there were no lines.

Photo: Correo del Caroní

Over in The New York Times, our very own Carlos Hernández writes a brilliant slice-of-life piece about what his neighborhood in Ciudad Guayana felt like on election day. There are lots of good reasons to go read it, the first being that Carlos is so friggin’ talented it’s outrageous. He just has a natural knack for this simple, unhurried, unadorned but piercing narrative style a soft-spoken, this-is-just-what-I-saw way of telling the story that makes you feel like you’re right there next to him, seeing what he sees.

“I spent all day Saturday talking to people I know, on the phone and in person, and all of them were like me: They hadn’t made up their minds about what to do, let alone chosen a candidate. The government has made sure to bar all the good candidates; the ones left are opportunists. Who runs in an election after Broad Front and the Lima Group, a coalition of governments in the Americas, said it couldn’t be free and fair? And who wants to vote for those candidates? No one I know, apparently.

So, I have a mission this Sunday: I want to find someone who truly cares about this election. Schools are used as voting centers, and my plan is to visit four within walking distance of my home.

I live in a sprawling middle-class neighborhood of three-story buildings, mostly residential with some small businesses. Although the anti-Chavistas usually win here, it’s always a close call.

I go out at about 9:00 a.m., and the streets are empty. No cars — sure; after all, the streets are closed off. But there are no pedestrians either. And no flags.”

The kind of writing Carlos does — unadorned, unstuffy, militantly specific, allergic to abstraction is rare and precious. It ought to be the simplest thing in the world, but actually it’s horrifically hard to get right. Strip a piece of generalization, of theorizing, of grand pronouncement, adjectives and bluster and, suddenly, there’s no place to hide. You either have a precise observation to convey, or you have nothing at all. This is the hardest kind of writing to do. Simple, it turns out, is absolutely fucking grueling.

I can’t write like that — wish I could. My mind isn’t wired for it. It rushes off into abstraction at the slightest provocation. Like here. I couldn’t help read Carlos’s beautiful, crisp prose and think of the main puzzle of the last 48 hours.

Omar Zambrano has been fulminating on Twitter about it. And it genuinely is a puzzle. As recently as the first half of this month, 60-70% of voters were telling pollsters they were “sure” or “very sure” they would vote. It would now appear that between a third and half of them (depending on how inflated you think CNE’s official turnout tally was) were lying.

What happened?

Carlos’s piece gives us a good clue. On Sunday, oppo voters faced a coordination problem: most of them wanted to vote provided everyone else was voting too. But if others weren’t voting, even people minded to do it saw little point in turning out. Boycotting only makes sense if everyone else does it.

Why didn’t anyone turn out? The answer is right there in Carlos’ piece: nobody voted… because nobody was voting.

60-70% of voters were telling pollsters they were “sure” or “very sure” they would vote. It would now appear that between a third and half of them were lying.

On Sunday morning, voters like Carlos unsure whether it was worth their time  were making the same decision everyone had. They went out tentatively looking for lines and, finding none, they had their answer: the boycott had worked.

This suggests that it’s not so much that voters lied to pollsters about their willingness to vote. The question wasn’t framed properly; people were willing if everyone else did.

Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, but it does suggest an intriguing alternative scenario.

Maybe if the Falcón campaign had focused its resources on mobilizing enough people early in the day to generate lines outside key, highly visible voting centers, people like Carlos would have seen them and thought “hey, the boycott failed, let’s vote!” They’d have gotten in line because there was a line — and they would’ve made it longer, enticing yet more people, in a self-reinforcing cycle.

Which is to say that maybe we don’t need to be so harsh on those pollsters. The people who told them they were willing to vote were telling the truth. They would have… if everyone else had, too.