The surprises are still coming from Venezuela’s elections for state governor on Oct. 15. The headline result — a shocking, across-the-board victory for the ruling Socialists — stunned the public in Caracas and those up and down the hemisphere. But that, as has now become clear, is not the end of the story. The ruling party founded by the late Hugo Chávez and run by his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, piled on the dirty tricks to win this election. In itself, that is nothing new. Illegal campaign funding, intimidation, threats, harassment, coercion: All these things have become sadly normalized in Venezuela over the past five years, and they no longer count as news.
But through it all, the government clung steadfastly to one last source of democratic legitimacy — at least the vote count itself wasn’t rigged. This turned out to be a powerful claim. Even when the conditions surrounding the vote were profoundly unfree and entirely unfair, the final tally reflected the votes cast on election day.
The government could claim this because Venezuela has electronic voting machines that are at once sophisticated and auditable. Voters punch their votes into a terminal, and the machine prints out a paper voucher. The vouchers are then deposited in a ballot box. At the end of the day, the machine produces an electronic tally. It’s printed out, in triplicate, and witnesses for all sides sign it. Then (and only then), the machine transmits the total electronically to a tallying center in Caracas. Volunteers at each voting center are then supposed to hand-count a sample of the paper vouchers deposited in ballot boxes at each center.