After the CNE Fire, Can We Have Elections in Venezuela?

The recent CNE fire begs questions not only about the fairness of upcoming elections in Venezuela, but about the possibility of holding elections at all. Just how damaged the whole system is and what can be done to truly fix it?

Photo: El Nacional, retrieved.

After an elections authority (CNE) warehouse burned down on Saturday (March 7th), the debate about elections in Venezuela came back to life. Can we have elections this year? The most common question in the past few hours has a simple answer: yes. The loss of hardware stored at the Fila de Mariches warehouse (Sucre municipality, Miranda State), however, can have a significant effect in the already decaying and precarious conditions for fair Venezuelan elections.

What burned?

The CNE Fila de Mariches warehouse is used to store voting equipment. Its personnel also performs complex tasks like programming the voting machines and some of the main audits to the system. The warehouse is approximately six thousand square meters. Two weeks before the fire, the CNE was doing an inventory and planning the deployment for the 2020 elections.

The fire damaged physical infrastructure, the technological infrastructure (production and audit lines), and the technological hardware (voting machines and components) were damaged. The cause is still unknown.

More specifically, this is what was lost:

  • 49,508 voting machines (98.5% of the equipment);
  • 49,323 Biometric Authentication Systems (98.5% of the equipment, these are used to biometrically identify the voter at each voting table and machine);
  • 22,434 current inverters (the older models, SAES 2500, need current inverters to access backup energy—12V batteries—in case of an electrical mishap; the newer models have an integrated current inverter).

The fire also damaged:

  • 582 laptops used for updating the Civil and Electoral Registry;
  • 400 electronic ballots;
  • 127,000 membranes (used in elections for the last ten years).

What was salvaged?

  • 105,000 memory cards from voting machines;
  • 24 servers;
  • 562 voting machines, SAES 4300 model;
  • 724 Integrated Identification Systems (used at the entrance of each voting center to time how long voters take to vote).

Was the voting system lost?

The fire damaged physical infrastructure, the technological infrastructure (production and audit lines), and the technological hardware (voting machines and components) were damaged.

The Venezuelan voting system is 100% automated for voting, counting, information transmission, and totalling results. With this fire, the voting, counting, and transmission equipment was lost, but the software used in these stages is safe.

However, the significant loss of machines and biometric devices begs the question on what the next steps will be in order to guarantee fairness in upcoming elections.

The gradual process of substituting the manual vote began in 1995 and lasted until 2004. In those nine years, two different technologies were used:

  1. Optical recognition scanner for marked ballots, designed by Spanish company Indra.
  2. Electoral solutions designed by the UK-based company Smartmatic (founded by Venezuelan engineers).

Smartmatic won the public tender in 2003, applying its resources in the recall referendum for the then president, Hugo Chávez. The same software and hardware designed by Smartmatic has been used in Venezuela ever since.

After the presidential elections in 2006, the Venezuelan elections have been 100% automated, including the additional step in 2012 of biometric authentication of voters.

Smartmatic had to leave the country in 2017 after denouncing how the CNE president manipulated the participation bulletin in the election for the members of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC). The absence of Smartmatic has been filled by the Venezuelan branch of Argentine company Exclé, specialized in biometric identification. 

Losing the equipment (hardware) means that the CNE can take at least four different paths. The first is buying new hardware: the voting system, the counting at voting stations and the transmission of results to the CNE Totalling Room is designed to work with Smartmatic-approved equipment. The logical step is replacing this with the manufacturer, but the international sanctions placed on the regime make this negotiation very unlikely. The CNE could buy new equipment from companies in Russia, China or Turkey (avoiding international sanctions), and that would mean changing software for voting, counting and transmitting the results. 

The significant loss of machines and biometric devices begs the question on what the next steps will be in order to guarantee fairness in upcoming elections.

The second path is changing the whole voting system, or design a new one: the international sanctions mean serious complications for a complete system overhaul, unless the option comes from an allied country like Russia, China or Turkey. There’s also the possibility that the CNE (and Maduro’s regime) decides to use a system that was either designed or modified in Venezuela following the footsteps of the electoral authority in the Dominican Republic. The suspension of elections in the Dominican Republic because of flaws in the voting program is a precedent to keep in mind.

If it turns out that replacing the lost hardware or going for a whole new system is an insurmountable task, the CNE can opt for manual voting for the 2020 parliamentary elections (and any other election that may come) as a third path. In this case, it’s unknown whether the technology used for transmission and totalling of results (designed by Smartmatic) would be kept. Using manual vote (something requested by some opposition members) can significantly increase the impact of social control Maduro has in elections. Additionally, it could give the military a significant role in carrying the results from the voting centers to local and regional counting stations. In this hypothetical scenario of manual voting, the CNE could go for transmission systems like the ones used in Argentina, Bolivia or Ecuador (in the case of Bolivia and Ecuador they have negative precedents and Argentina has a positive result).

The last option would be requesting international assistance: El Salvador’s presidential election in 2019 clearly illustrates how the support of international cooperation can bring the necessary technology for a specific election. In this particular case, the data transmission was done from each voting center with hardware and software donated by South Korea and Aweb. Now, Aweb has been under investigation for corruption and for favoring Miru, an election tech company from South Korea. In any case, Maduro’s regime could make a formal request for electoral assistance from the United Nations, and the UN itself could find the company best suited for this key matter.

Who makes the decision?

The debate on how to replace the loss of material caused by the fire on Saturday, March 7th, happens amid a complex negotiation process about the political and technical structure of the CNE. The current rectors of the CNE could make a transcendental decision for the democratic future of the country, in spite of its status and how it’s perceived at home and abroad. 

If the current automated system stays as it is, or if new technology is incorporated, it’s imperative to make the process accountable in all its stages.

The current rectors of the CNE could make a transcendental decision for the democratic future of the country. 

From a general perspective, the system’s verification process must include an exhaustive look at all components of the voting machine, the totalling system, the transmission and the Electoral Registry, including the information of fingerprints, with clearly established and agreed protocols, with the presence of national and international observers and the technical witnesses from the proposing organizations, that must have complete access, with enough time and space, to professionally certify the technology. In the specific case of the automated voting system, the following must be verified and audited:

  1. Software for picking the members for the electoral stations and Electoral Boards, as well as witnesses for the draw.
  2. The Electoral Registry (special operations).
  3. The voting machines’ software.
  4. The voting machines’ configuration.
  5. The voting machines’ data (biographical: name, ID number and biometric: fingerprints).
  6. Software for the Voter Information System machines (eliminated for the governors’ election on October 15th, 2017).
  7. Voting machine production and draw of machines to use in the pre-delivery audit.
  8. Software for Voter Information System machines.
  9. Indelible ink (the CNE stopped using it in the last three elections).
  10. Voting notebooks.
  11. Totalling system software.
  12. CNE’s infrastructure for automated voting processes.
  13. Zeroing all the necessary systems to carry out the elections.
  14. Phase I of Data Transmission.
  15. The draw at voting centers and stations on election day at 6:00 p.m., previously verifying the software to use for the draw (they must be used for the audit in Phase II).
  16. Phase II of Data Transmission.
  17. Phase II of civil verification, after elections, with randomly selected machines on the day of the event.
  18. Fingerprint incident report.
  19. Fingerprint verification after the elections, checking for possible identity theft.

What could happen now?

One of the most accepted concepts about democracy suggests that its main pillars are competition and participation. Both conditions must be present in an election, allowing these events to be the cornerstone on which democratic governments stand.

Unfortunately, after the parliamentary elections on December 6th, 2015, the right to choose and the possibility to compete and even run in elections became weakened and even more undermined, with an evident purpose to block and impede democratic alternation in power.

Before the fire on March 7th, 2020, the electoral conditions were poor. The fire can give Maduro’s regime the perfect excuse to design a voting system (manual or automated) that finally blocks any possibility of a peaceful and electoral end of the multi-factor crisis that the country’s going through.

Eugenio Martínez

Journalist (UCAB), who has covered 23 elections in Venezuela. He worked at El Universal for 17 years. He has authored two books about the 2006 elections and the Venezuelan student movement.