A Blueprint for the Venezuelan Diaspora Vote

Should conditions for a free and fair election with international observation be given (or something close to it), Venezuelans abroad must vote, and we must start addressing the issues that need to be resolved as early as possible

Photo: Hector Gabino

Presidential elections are scheduled to take place in Venezuela in December 2024. Of course the negotiation happening in Mexico (if it restarts) would be the ideal space to negotiate conditions for free and fair competition and for the participation of international observation missions that can contribute to the integrity of the process. But besides ensuring transparency and equity in the pre-electoral period, a clean and inclusive voting process and voting day, and an orderly voting counting process, political actors would need to ensure that the 2024 election responds to a new situation: the electoral inclusion of those eligible within the 6 million Venezuelans now living in the diaspora.

Some of us have heard that part of the opposition is willing to go to an election without Venezuelans voting abroad; this would be a mistake. We know two rectores within the National Electoral Council are insisting on making arrangements for Venezuelans voting abroad and we could anticipate facing resistance from the other ones; but not including the diaspora would be a mistake. 

Let’s just say it how it is: excluding Venezuelans in the diaspora from voting in future presidential elections, or referendums (as the Constitution stipulates) goes against the spirit of our Constitution, would be a major flaw of a supposedly free and fair election, and would jeopardize Venezuela’s transition to democracy from its origin.

So Venezuela needs its diaspora voting in the 2024 elections, and beyond. Now that it’s not a few hundred thousand but millions, we must look to the region and the world, and learn from the experience of other countries who have a lot of practice including their nationals abroad in their elections. In reality, Venezuela isn’t an exception; it’s actually part of the group of 16 other Latin American countries that legally allow their nationals to vote from other countries.

There are some issues that we need to think about to ensure their participation throughout the electoral cycle—pre-electoral, electoral and post-electoral phases in particular.

In general terms, there are some issues that need to be resolved either via transitory legislation to be negotiated in Mexico, and approved in the National Assembly, or via a transitory regime for the organization and administration of that election. These include (a) defining the eligibility of who would vote, (b) defining the requirements, deadlines and conditions for the diaspora to register to vote, (c) defining the modality of the voting process, and (d) defining how electoral results will be counted and transmitted from other countries.

Who Would Vote

Regarding the first issue, defining eligibility, this has to really follow the spirit of the Constitution, which stipulates that all Venezuelan nationals can vote from abroad without conditions. 

Two issues come to mind. On one hand, the need to agree on eliminating the TSJ restriction that prevents Venezuelans from voting unless they are able to show regular status in the country where they are voting. This is completely contrary to the Rule of Law, and violates Venezuelans’ political rights. Venezuelans are Venezuelans wherever they are. So Venezuelans need to be able to register to vote and vote, no matter their migratory status.  

A second issue is the way their names are added to the electoral registry. Will this be automatic once electoral and consular records are updated? Or will they be required to show up at Venezuelan embassies and consulates (we will address this issue later) to physically register? And if so, will there be auditing and guarantees that this is being done properly? Who will audit the registration of Venezuelans abroad? Opposition parties’ representatives abroad? Citizens in general? Will there be support from the international community on this? 

Lastly, there is a major issue to be addressed: Venezuelans’ lack of trust in electoral processes. The thorny issue of generating diaspora Venezuelans’ trust in institutions to be ready to register to vote. To give them assurances that their information won’t be used against them. They need to be sure that their information won’t  be used, for instance, to report them to immigration authorities in receiving countries if they are in irregular status, or that it won’t be used by either the opposition or Maduro regime for electoral purposes. It will be crucial to be ready to combat disinformation campaigns about this. And to be honest, probably only an international organization would be able to generate the trust needed.

By the way, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has extensive experience on this, and can probably support this aspect of the election. 

A second issue we need to think about has to do with the requirements to register, and we may also have a major problem considering Venezuelans’ limited access to identity documents. For the 2024 election, a decision will have to be made as to what form of identification Venezuelans would need to register and vote. In the past, Venezuelans could vote with a valid passport or a valid or expired cédula de identidad. Those lucky enough to have those are set, but we need a solution for the millions who don’t have either one. Because yes, democracy also is about finding solutions to include all those who need to be included and we have to start planning if we want to have enough time for all this to happen before December 2024.

These are just a couple of the issues to consider during the pre-electoral phase.

How to Vote from Abroad

Now for the voting itself, we are facing a new set of challenges that start with where and how Venezuelans will be able to vote. You see, there are already some modalities for diaspora voting used by other countries that we may emulate. These include proxy and postal voting, internet or electronic voting, and consular voting, to mention some. Let’s review what these are. Proxy voting, or voto por poder, would involve an authorized individual casting a ballot on behalf of the voter, with the agreement of course that they will vote as intended by the voter abroad. Belgium, France and Sweden have used this mode of voting in the past. Through postal voting, an electoral package is delivered to the diaspora voter to their home address in the country where they have settled, who then mails in their vote directly to the electoral management body. Countries like France, Germany, Iceland and Mexico in our region have experience with this type of voting. Spain, and also Mexico have implemented electronic voting (via fax or internet), in which voters exercise their intention via protected and audited webpages. And the most common and widely used in Latin America, in-person consular voting, through which the consulate or embassy becomes the voting center. Representatives of the electoral body, and citizens trained by them, oversee election day, count the votes, and ensure all goes according to procedure.

Considering the humanitarian crisis facing Venezuelan citizens, and the risk of vote buying, as well as their distrust in electoral procedures, proxy voting is probably out of the question. Internet voting and fax voting require sophisticated levels of protection, and a functioning technological architecture which is lacking in the country, and is not guaranteed in all receiving countries from which Venezuelans will be voting. We all know the challenges of the Venezuelan postal system. This is also not viable. 

So unless technology and trust issues are resolved and we plan for electronic voting, consular voting will probably be the best option for Venezuelans voting abroad. It’s actually what has been used in past Venezuelan elections. 

However, there are a completely new set of challenges for this. And these are not just technical, they are also political.

Today, Maduro’s National Electoral Council (CNE) controls the organization and administration of the election. What will the CNE do in a country that has recognized Guaidó’s caretaker government? Who will the CNE coordinate electoral arrangements with? This isn’t a small group of countries. Although the number of countries recognizing Guaidó has been dwindling, we still have countries where there are Venezuelans, and no Maduro embassies or consulates. On the other hand, in countries with diplomatic relations with Maduro, how will you convince people in the diaspora that their information will be protected through the electoral process? Will they trust going to embassies or consulates to vote?

These and other questions need answers, including how votes will be counted from abroad, and how results will be sent to Caracas to be processed. 

All Venezuelans have the right to vote in a free and fair election that can bring democracy back, and we need to also devise ways to include those living abroad. This is no easy task, which is why it may be a good idea to establish a working group of Venezuelan and international experts from all sides of the political spectrum to think through all phases of the electoral process and make proposals on how best to ensure the diaspora is included. Why not have countries of the region put together a second group with representatives from electoral management bodies from countries who have had a lot of practice with voting abroad so they make recommendations on how best to address the issues described here and many others? The electoral team at the Organization of American States (OAS) or the team at the Center for Electoral Promotion and Assistance (IIHR/CAPEL) could support this endeavor. This would be in line with the spirit of regional cooperation, and would help ensure we give un paso firme towards democracy with electoral competitiveness, inclusion, and transparency in the 2024 elections, and beyond. 

* Opinions are personal. They do not represent those of the Organization of American States.