September 29, 2004

The Paper Trail as Entelechy

Last night, I listened to the BBC World Service's report on Jimmy Carter's concerns on voting in Florida. Lyse Doucet, the legendary BBC journo, laid into the Florida official she was interviewing like only she can,

"It seems quite remarkable, then, that Florida's elections are set to go forward using electronic voting without a verifiable paper trail...after all, in the recent referendum in Venezuela the Carter Center made it quite clear that a paper trail was the one safeguard that positively had to be in place to go forward..."


The Venezuelan referendum has become a byword for "well-run election" in the international media. It's despiriting, both because it's clear that Ms. Doucet doesn't really understand what happened in Venezuela and because it underlines, yet again, how effective CNE was in selling its version of events.

The paper trail has acquired a strange status in Venezuela. On the one hand, it's presented as the key safeguard vouching for the correctness of the election. On the other hand, we're not allowed to look at it. Well, not at 99% of it anyway. Apparently, we're supposed to be reassured by its existence rather than by its content. When we ask to look through it more thoroughly, CNE honcho Jorge Rodriguez accuses us of blackmail!

Paper ballots (papeletas) from 1% of the voting centers were audited on the August 18th cold audit - a cold audit that, as readers will know, has been questioned as un-random. CNE steadfastly refused to open any boxes beyond that 1% - both before and after the initial cold audit.

As mathematicians and physicists studying the referendum results zero in on a subset of tables that appear to show anomalous results, CNE affirms once more that CNE and CNE alone gets to decide which parts of the paper trail get looked at, and repeats that no further boxes will be opened. If we complain and say that that isn't a very transparent way to run an election, the answer writes itself: "Whaddayamean it wasn't transparent!? There was even a printed paper trail, that's how transparent it was!"

Follow me so far?

The paper trail has become a perfect entelechy, a kind of metaphysical imponderable. If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around, does it make a sound? If a voting safeguard is instituted, but no one is allowed to see it, does it actually safeguard anything?

Amidst all the strange comings and goings, the amazing transmogriphying REP, the illegal shifts in people's assigned voting centers, the last minute voting center personel transfers, the bidirectional communications of the voting machines, the aborted hot-audits, the anomalous exit poll results, the dodgy "randomness" of the cold-audit, the non-binomial distribution of the vote in some states, the Benford Law anomalies, etc. CNE has a soothing retort to any question we could throw at it: "trust us, the vote had to be fair. After all, there was a paper trail...everybody knows that's the most important safeguard, even Lyse Doucet knows that..."

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September 27, 2004

Carter nos saca la lengua

I suppose Jimmy Carter didn't stop to consider how his opinion piece in today's Washinton Post might strike an opposition-minded Venezuelans - why should he? - but from our point of view, it's hard to shake the feeling he's mocking us. The very least one can say is that his standard for what is ok in Tallahasee is not precisely his standard for what is ok in Plaza Caracas. But what's really remarkable about this deeply upsetting bit of gringocentric punditry is how similar his complaints are, in content and tone, to what the Coordinadora Democrática has been saying about CNE for over a year now...

Still Seeking a Fair Florida Vote
By Jimmy Carter
Monday, September 27, 2004; Page A19

After the debacle in Florida four years ago, former president Gerald Ford and I were asked to lead a blue-ribbon commission to recommend changes in the American electoral process. After months of concerted effort by a dedicated and bipartisan group of experts, we presented unanimous recommendations to the president and Congress. The government responded with the Help America Vote Act of October 2002. Unfortunately, however, many of the act's key provisions have not been implemented because of inadequate funding or political disputes.

The Carter Center has monitored more than 50 elections, all of them held under contentious, troubled or dangerous conditions. When I describe these activities, either in the United States or in foreign forums, the almost inevitable questions are: "Why don't you observe the election in Florida?" and "How do you explain the serious problems with elections there?"

The answer to the first question is that we can monitor only about five elections each year, and meeting crucial needs in other nations is our top priority. (Our most recent ones were in Venezuela and Indonesia, and the next will be in Mozambique.) A partial answer to the other question is that some basic international requirements for a fair election are missing in Florida.

The most significant of these requirements are:

- A nonpartisan electoral commission or a trusted and nonpartisan official who will be responsible for organizing and conducting the electoral process before, during and after the actual voting takes place. Although rarely perfect in their objectivity, such top administrators are at least subject to public scrutiny and responsible for the integrity of their decisions. Florida voting officials have proved to be highly partisan, brazenly violating a basic need for an unbiased and universally trusted authority to manage all elements of the electoral process.

Read the rest of the Opinion piece...

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