March 15, 2006

Sanity on the EU EOM

Well, the European Union Electoral Observation Mission (EU EOM) final report has been published (strictly for Spanish speaking masochists) and the predictable Media frenzy has ensued.

The final report isn't much different from the preliminary report. The main difference, as far as I can see, is a new recommendation for much deeper reform of the Electoral Registry (note, reform, not audit.) On page 23, the EU EOM notes that the ongoing calls for a REP "audit" are somewhat misplaced: the only credible way to get to the bottom of REP's "structural problems" (their phrase) is to cross-check it systematically against the Civil Registry. But, in practice, that's not possible, because there's no digital version of the Civil Registry. So the EU calls for deep reform, including an intriguing suggestion to merge REP outright with an overhauled, computerized Civil Registry.

Though the inevitable tug-of-war to highlight the parts of the report that "favor" one side or the other has already started, I'll do the unthinkable and highlight EU spokesman Doménico Tuccinardi's plea for people to attempt a holistic reading - resisting the urge to pick and choose between findings.

So while the EU EOM does highlight the need to stop using the Maisanta Software for political discrimination, it also notes that "in their electoral preparation, CNE demonstrated a clear will to respond to opposition demands and boost confidence in the process." While the report notes, on page 30, that it was possible to reconstruct the sequence of voting stored in the machines, it goes on to describe the likelihood that such data could be used to violate secret voting as "remote."

Their take on two very sensitive aspects seems worth citing at some length. First there's the matter of when, precisely, voting machines are hooked in to telecom networks (p. 53):
Results were transmitted very quickly and in an orderly fashion. When voting tables closed, their members printed final tally sheets without difficulties. They then connected the voting machines to a communications medium (in most cases a telephone land line) and sent the results to the Tallying Center in Caracas. We observed no ccases of results being transmitted before tally sheets had been printed and their results exhibited, which was a major charge after the Presidential Referendum.

Then there's the matter of the "hot" audit - which was conducted on the night of the vote, even though the results have still not been announced:
The closing procedures were followed in general terms, and in all voting centers where EU observers were present, they proceeded to a paper ballot recount audit ("recuento de resguardos de votacion.") The instructions to choose by lots the voting tables to be audited were not always followed. We observed the manual recount of paper ballots in 75 different voting tables. Although the recount procedure was slow, the results showed clearly the trustworthiness of the [electronic] results, except in a few cases where we observed a discrepancy between the number of voters counted in the voting rolls and those counted by the voting machines, and between the paper ballots and the votes registered by the voting machines. In 28% of observed cases there was a discrepancy between the number of votes counted by the voting machine and the paper ballots counted. The difference was, in all cases, between 1 and 5 votes, and was attributed to human error in the manual recount.

As I've written many times, this partial recount of paper ballots is the key safeguard in the whole system. Given that, according to the EU, the paper ballot recount went so well, it is just baffling to me why it takes CNE 10 weeks (and counting) to produce a damn report about it.

In any case it's true that these hot-audits are public events. Even if CNE takes forever and a day to publish results, if all the paper ballot audits were wildly out of line with the electronic results, people at each voting center would notice and word would get around awfully quickly. So CNE's delays are inexcusable, but this is still a significant and underestimated safeguard.

The EU OEM's fundamental overall conclusion, however, is impossible to deny: the biggest problem they observed is the lack of confidence in CNE. The report puts the call for a new, credible and impartial CNE at the top of its recommendations, and it seems clear to me that if that condition were met, the rest would follow...