After fourteen years of Hugo Chávez’s personalist leadership, Venezuelans took their first steps into a brave new world of political contestation on April 14 when they elected a president to fulfill Chávez’s term. The fireworks that marked the aggressive campaign are, in a sense, still going off. The unexpectedly close special presidential election between interim president Nicolás Maduro and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, with a difference of 1.8 percent of the vote (or 272,865 votes), was followed by postelection turmoil in the streets and opposing international calls for either a vote recount or immediate recognition of Maduro’s slim victory.
After losing by 11 points to the recently deceased Hugo Chávez last October, Capriles turned in what by opposition standards was a terrific result. Emboldened by winning a record-high 7.3 million votes, and troubled by the lack of fairness in campaign conditions, Capriles called for a full recount and refused to accept the results until it was carried out. Turnout reached approximately 80 percent, half a percentage point less than in October, once again making it clear Venezuelans value the ballot.
Semantics surrounding Venezuela’s automated voting system bogged down this recount demand, and international calls for a recount further confused the discussion. But these are not just pedantic semantics. The National Electoral Council (CNE) and Supreme Court head rejected the calls for a “recount,” arguing that it would mean a return to the manual voting method of the past, which was discarded because of suspected fraud fifteen years ago. The CNE did, however, eventually agree to an “audit.”
In Venezuela, citizens vote on touch-screen voting machines and receive a paper receipt to confirm their electronic vote. They deposit the slip in a ballot box to be available for a “citizen verification” of the electronic vote in slightly more than half of the voting tables after the close of the polls on election night. The legal vote is the one registered in the voting machine and printed out from the machine, with copies going to the central election headquarters, the election workers at that voting table and all of the party witnesses present.
Though publically Capriles had called for a “recount vote by vote,” on April 17 the campaign formally requested an audit of the system, including a comparison of the paper receipts and electronic tally sheets along with the number of voters recorded in the manual voters’ log, as well as an audit of all of the remaining “voting instruments,” including the fingerprint registration machines.