A tale of two elections: Venezuelan accountability and U.S. irregularities

There were two widely watched national elections earlier this month. In one, a popular incumbent won for the fifth time in a voting system called “the best in the world” by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The other election featured widespread attempts at voter suppression with many localities using computer systems with no paper backup that do not confirm the results.

The incumbent in the first example is nonetheless routinely referred to the corporate media as a “dictator” while the second country is portrayed by the same corporate media as “the world’s greatest democracy” that has the right to dictate to other countries.

The first example, as you have by now surmised, is Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Just for the record, here are the results of his presidential contests:

  • December 1998: Elected president with 56.2 percent of the vote.
  • July 2000: Re-elected president with 59.8 percent of the vote under a new constitution.
  • August 2004: Retained presidency by defeating a recall referendum with 59.3 percent of the vote.
  • December 2009: Re-elected president with 62.9 percent of the vote.
  • November 2012: Re-elected president with 55 percent of the vote (81 percent of those eligible voted).

If we were to count elections to the parliament, state and local elections, and various referendums, President Chávez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela have won 15 of 16 elections since 1998. The lone exception was a ballot on constitutional changes that lost by two percentage points – and his reaction was simply to accept the results. Accepting a narrow defeat and allowing an opposition that bitterly hates you and everything you stand for to place a recall referendum on the ballot — it would seem that President Chávez needs to work much harder to become a “dictator.”

All parties confirm voting process in Venezuela

What most stands out in Venezuelan elections is the transparency of the electronic voting system. Voters in Venezuela make their selections on computers in which party and independent observers participated in 16 pre-election audits, according to a report by the Carter Center. The center’s report further states:

“One of the key aspects of the security control mechanisms involves the construction of an encryption key — a string of characters — created by contributions from the opposition, government, and [National Electoral Council], which is placed on all the machines once the software source-code has been reviewed by all the party experts. The software on the machines cannot then be tampered with unless all three parties join together to “open” the machines and change the software. In addition, each voting system machine has its own individual digital signature that detects if there is any modification to the machine. If the voting count is somehow tampered with despite these security mechanisms, it should be detectable … because of the various manual verification mechanisms.” [page 5]

As an added precaution, each voter has a fingerprint on file, with a voter having to provide a fingerprint to avoid anyone attempting to vote more than once, and this system is also encrypted to guarantee secrecy. Finally, there measures to ensure accuracy in the vote count, including printouts of all votes and an automatic audit. The Carter Center reports:

“The voting process permits voters to verify their ballots through a paper receipt generated by the voting machine. A comparison of a count of the paper receipts and the electronic tally at the end of the voting day with the presence of voters, political party witnesses, domestic observers, and the general public is conducted in a large sample of approximately 53 percent of the voting tables, selected at random. Additionally, party witnesses receive a printout of the electronic tally from every machine. The [National Electoral Council] gives the party a CD with the results of each machine and publishes them on the website so that all of these results can be compared. The human element is therefore still important.” [page 7]

The opposition coalition that supported President Chávez’s main opponent, Henrique Capriles, approved the voting lists and electoral process ahead of the vote; the opposition campaign therefore had no basis to contest the results afterward and indeed conceded soon after the polls closed. It took only “minutes” for the vote to be announced, based on 90 percent of the vote total, according to a commentary by a Venezuelan journalist writing for the business publication Forbes magazine.

One would not expect to see an article praising Hugo Chávez’s government in a publication like Forbes, which proudly refers to itself as a “capitalist tool.” So all the more noteworthy is this commentary by Venezuelan journalist Eugenio Martinez:

“[I]t may be time for the greatest democracy in the world to take a lesson from Venezuela on how to develop and administer an efficient electronic voting system spanning across all stages of the electoral process.”

Controversy in U.S. presidential elections

We can contrast that with the U.S. election, in which it took days for many local races to be known; the Florida vote for president wasn’t decided until the following weekend. A week after the election, the winners of six congressional races could not be determined.

U.S. elections are rarely without controversy, and the last four presidential elections have featured significant attempts to suppress the vote, controversies concerning unverifiable voting machines, hours-long lines at polling places sometimes due to manipulations in the distribution of voting machines and even (in 2000) a sacking of an election office to prevent a re-count from being conducted.

That 2000 sacking occurred in Miami when a mob organized by Republican Party operatives stormed the election office, physically preventing the vote count from continuing in an area expected to vote for Al Gore, the Democratic Party presidential candidate. The 2004 election saw the first widespread use of electronic voting machines. And in 2012, many states with Republican governments passed laws aimed at keeping groups of people, particularly African-Americans, from being able to vote, and on election day there were widespread reports of shortages of machines in areas expected to vote heavily for Democrats, leading to long lines while nearby areas expected to vote Republican had no lines at all. Similar problems also occurred in 2004 and 2008.

In contrast to Venezuelan voting machines which can be checked, many U.S. voting machines are not equipped with any way to confirm the results — and the machines use private, proprietary software belonging to the manufacturers of the machines that is not accessible to election officials, nor do they provide printouts for confirmation. The 2004 presidential election was noteworthy for the extraordinary 5.5 percentage-points disparity between exit polls and the announced results.

In the U.S., the presidential vote is actually 51 separate votes because each state plus the District of Columbia distill their individual totals into the electoral college. Statistically, it would not be unexpected that two might report a result that is a small amount outside the polls’ margin of error, with the divergences evenly distributed. In 2004, seven states reported results that were so far beyond the margin of error that the odds of any one happening are less than one percent, according to a study by the group US Count Votes. The odds of seven outliers (all in one direction, for George W. Bush) to such an extent is one in ten million!

The study then broke down discrepancies between exit polling and official results, and found that in jurisdictions in which paper ballots were used, the aggregate discrepancy was within the margin of error (and thus statistically unremarkable), while the aggregate discrepancy for electronic machines was far outside the margin of error, sufficiently so to conclude that an impartial investigation be conducted (which was not done).

A separate watchdog group, Election Defense Alliance, said of these unexplained discrepancies and other problems following the 2008 election:

“The central process of our elections is the counting of our votes. Yet we now have electronic machines that count our votes out of view [of U.S.] citizens — in other words, in secret. … In the presence of large exit polls discrepancies, there is no way to know whether or not extensive fraud has been committed without an extensive investigation, including access to the voting machines. After three consecutive national elections manifesting large exit poll discrepancies well beyond the margin of error, and all in the same direction, it is way past time that we find a way as a nation to ensure that our elections are conducted fairly.”

The three largest manufacturers of voting machines in the U.S. at that time each had strong connections to the Republican Party, and machines of each were involved in problems with the 2004 vote, according to exhaustive accounts chronicled in the book Fooled Again by Mark Crispin Miller.

The 2012 presidential vote aligned very closely with polling; perhaps sufficient safeguards have begun to be implemented. But the shortage of machines in areas with heavy concentrations of Democratic voters in several Republican-controlled states demonstrates that clean elections remain an aspirational goal. The attempted voter suppression may have backfired, as most of the voting-suppression laws were overturned by courts and news reports were full of African-Americans and others determined to vote to defy those who didn’t want them to do so.

Enthusiasm in Venezuela a contrast to U.S. voters

The sanctity of the vote itself aside, the U.S. election was mostly a sterile affair of voting against the other candidate; neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney could generate much excitement. Certainly there were millions of people in Venezuela motivated by opposition to Hugo Chávez, but there were many more who voted for the incumbent enthusiastically. A reporter writing before the election for the online news site Venezuelanalysis wrote:

“Talking to people at the Merida rally, I was impressed by the depth of political consciousness and variety of opinions among the crowd as to why they supported Chavez’s re-election. For some, Latin American integration was the reason, for others, free healthcare. For many, their main reason for supporting Chavez, as one middle-aged couple put it to me, was that ‘he’s the president who has most given power to the people’ while another man told me, ‘he’s the president who has awoken the people of Venezuela and fellow peoples.’ Another young woman told me her reason was quite simply ‘I love him.’ …

Indeed, the young woman who told me that ‘love’ was the reason she voted for Chavez wasn’t being tricked by some populist image or last minute spending burst. She came from a poor family which used to live in a shanty house near where the Merida rally took place. Now she is about to graduate as a doctor in the government’s integral community medicine program, and would have been excluded from the Venezuela’s traditionally elite medical system. Her shanty house had also been transformed into a dignified home through the community driven ‘homes for shanties’ program, part of the government’s mass housing construction mission. It’s transformations like these that have earned Chavez such strong support, as much as it pains the international media to say so. Indeed, according to corporate media sources, gaining the support of the popular majority through directing government policy toward their needs seems to be a bad thing for ‘democracy.’ ”

President Chávez is often accused in the corporate media, by no means only in the United States where the most vigorous opposition to the Bolivarian Revolution originates, of “buying” votes. Yet the presidential campaigns of President Obama and former Governor Romney spent approximately US$2 billion while an additional $1.7 billion was spent on congressional races, according to The Center for Responsive Politics. A handful of billionaires, most notably but not limited to oil barons David and Charles Koch and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson accounted for tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars each thanks to the a string of decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court that equate money with speech, capped by the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision.

How does that staggering amount of money not constitute buying votes and offices?

Uneven progress for Bolivarian Revolution

The point here isn’t that Venezuela is perfect or a paradise — it is neither. But President Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution has repeatedly received Venezuelans’ approval to continue progress toward what he calls “21st century socialism.”

That process is aimed explicitly at putting an end to the neoliberalism that has imposed so much misery and putting power into the hands of local communities so that people can make the decisions that affect them. Doing so is bitterly opposed by the former rulers of Venezuela, who were the leading backers of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles; by industrialists and financiers throughout the advanced capitalist countries; and by the numerically minuscule capitalist elites of regional countries.

The Bolivarian Revolution is a sometimes chaotic process that does not advance in a straight line; aspects of its are opposed by some leaders inside President Chávez’s government. Although nationalization of the state oil company receives most of the attention, the bedrock of the revolution are the formations of small cooperatives in a variety of industries; the creation of “social production companies” in which existing enterprises were to create co-management structures and create chains of supply with cooperatives; shuttered enterprises that are expropriated by the workers who re-start production; and experiments in “co-management” with workers’ participation conducted in large state-owned resource enterprises.

The last of these initiatives has suffered setbacks for a variety of reasons, including resistance from existing managements. A need for modernization and resistance from unions has also contributed to setbacks in creating workers’ co-management of the large state-owned resource enterprises. Considerable differences of opinion on the appropriate forms of management and ownership of enterprises continues not only among working people but among officials in the government.

Dario Azzellini, in a chapter covering Venezuela in the book Ours to Master and to Own (the source for the preceding two paragraphs), summarizes the progress of the Bolivarian Revolution:

“The transformation and democratization of the economy has proved the most difficult. The administration of most companies is neither under workers’ nor community control. Surrounded by a capitalist system and logic, it has been extremely challenging to establish collective production processes. Questions over the distribution of work and the resulting gains are particularly conflictive. However, where workers have succeeded in gaining control of their workplace, it can be observed that they have usually developed ties with the surrounding communities, abolished hierarchical structures, made themselves accountable to the workers’ assembly, and in most cases introduced equal salaries and increased the number of employed workers.” [page 397]

Professor Azzellini concludes that “The search for an alternative economy is thus firmly on the agenda.” We need not look any further to discover the solution to the puzzle of Venezuela being falsely painted as a “dictatorship” when it has elections much more transparent and fair than those of the United States.

Two-party lesser evilism rooted in winner-take-all system

It would be nice to vote for somebody we like as opposed to the “lesser evil.” Two-party systems are not to be found in any law, yet variations of them are prevalent among capitalist countries.

Countries as disparate as Britain, France, Germany and Spain have two dominant national parties, although nowhere is such a system as entrenched as in the United States, where there is not the limited space for small parties found elsewhere. The reason for such a constricted choice in the U.S. does not lie in its constitution (which makes no mention of parties), nor even in the iron-gripped dominance of its large corporations (although the Republican/Democratic split tends to replicate the industrialist/financier rivalry among capitalists).

Political parties don’t exist in a vacuum. They can exist only in a political system, the two basic types of which are legislatures or parliaments based on single-seat districts and those based on proportional representation. What sort of party system a given country has is more dependent on what kind of representative body it has than on any other factor.

A legislature based on districts each with one representative is a closed system. (This includes the U.S. Senate, which, because of its staggered terms, is effectively a single-seat system in which the district is an entire state.)

When there are two entrenched parties contesting for a single seat, there is no space for a third party to emerge. The two parties are necessarily unwieldy coalitions; they must be so because they will have to contain room for people and ideas across long portions of the political spectrum. (That does not mean that all factions’ desires are incorporated into the party’s positions or are even heard).

A faction of one of these two parties might gain the upper hand at one time, especially if it is linked with an ideology promoted by an energetic bloc of capitalists, but in this instance the party will become too narrow and rigid. The other major party will inevitably benefit and eventually the factionalized party will have to loosen the grip of its dominant faction and revert to becoming a coalition if it intends to compete successfully nationally in the future. This natural elasticity provides an additional stability to a two-party system.

Campaigns for elections in single-seat districts can be conducted on larger national issues or on the basis of an important local issue, but the tendency is for these elections to become contests between personalities. If the personality representing the other party is objectionable, or the other party is objectionable, then voting is reduced to the “lesser of two evils.”

Voting for a party or an individual becomes a sterile exercise in ensuring the other side doesn’t win. From the point of view of the candidates and parties, the safest strategy is one of peeling away voters from the only other viable candidate, thereby encouraging platforms to be close to that of the other viable candidate, promoting a tendency to lessen differences between the two dominant parties.

With little to distinguish the two parties, the importance of personality becomes more important, further blurring political ideas, and yet third choices are excluded because of the factors that continue to compel a vote for one of the two major-party candidates. In turn, such a system sends people to representative bodies on the basis of their personalities, encouraging those personalities to grandstand and act in an egocentric manner once they are seated.

These personalities are dependent on corporate money to get into and remain in office, and the parties they are linked to are equally dependent — the views of those with the most money are going to be heard more than other views. Corporations are the dominant institutions in advanced capitalist countries, and the accumulated wealth and power of those who lead and profit from them are able to disseminate their preferred ideologies through their influence over society’s other institutions, including educational, military and religious.

Leaders from corporate and other institutions, to be viable candidates, will seek office through one of the two dominant parties, thereby transmitting corporate ideology back into them, while also bolstering them by linking their personal “credibility” to the parties.

Compounding those tendencies, if the district boundaries can be redrawn any which way periodically, the two parties can work together so that both have “safe” seats. Elections cease to be competitive, and if you live in a district in which voters who consistently favor the other party are the majority, you are out of luck.

The two parties compete fiercely to win elections — they represent different groupings within the capitalist class who have a great deal of money at stake. This is a closed competition, however: They act as a cartel to keep corporate money rolling in and other parties out.

Although real choice is blocked, the illusion of competition is maintained and there is enough room to allow safety valves to work when needed, such as the removal from office of an unpopular office-holder. All this makes for a remarkably stable system: One U.S. government has fallen in 220 years.

More democratic is a parliamentary system, which in almost all cases comes with some form of proportional representation. The two notable exceptions are Canada and Britain, where members of parliament are elected from single-seat districts. Both have a third national party that consistently wins seats, but nonetheless usually produce single-party governments. This system retains some of the drawbacks of a single-seat congressional system, with the additional weakness that governments in both countries often take office with less than a majority of the vote.

One common parliamentary system is a combination of some seats representing districts and some seats being elected on a proportional basis from a list either on a national basis or from large political subdivisions. This allows voters to vote for a specific candidate and for a party at the same time. There is more scope for smaller parties here, and this type of system generally features several viable parties, depending on what threshold is set for the proportional-representation seats.

There can be two dominant parties in this type of system — Germany is an example — but the major parties often must govern with a smaller party in a coalition or even in a clumsy coalition with each other (thus, Germany’s tendency to produce periodic “grand coalition” governments). Parties in a coalition government will run on separate platforms and maintain separate identities — the next coalition might feature a different lineup.

Some countries fill all parliamentary seats on the basis of proportional representation. Each party supplies a list of candidates equal to the number of available seats; the top 20 names on the list from a party that wins 20 seats gain entry. This is a system that allows minorities to be represented — if a party wins 20 percent of the vote, it earns 20 percent of the seats.

If the cutoff limit is set too high (as is the case in Turkey, where ten percent is needed), then smaller parties find it difficult to win seats and voters are incentivized to vote for a major party — thus even in this system it is possible for only two or three parties to win all seats and a party that wins less than 50 percent of the vote can nonetheless earn a majority of seats because the seats are proportioned among only the two or three parties whose vote totals are above the cutoff.

A low cutoff better represents the spectrum of opinion in a country and allows more parties to be seated. Governments of coalitions are the likely result of such a system, which encourages negotiation and compromise. A party needs to earn five percent of the vote in many of these systems, but cutoffs are set as low as two percent.

Such a system in itself doesn’t guarantee full participation by everybody; a national, ethnic or religious majority, even if that majority routinely elects several parties into parliament, can exclude a minority, as happens in, for example, Israel. The most open legislative system must be augmented by a constitution with enforceable guarantees for all.

Still another variant on parliamentary representation are multiple-seat districts in which districts are drawn large. Voters cast ballots for as many candidates as there are seats — a minority group in a district should be able to elect at least one of their choice to a seat. This is a system that also has room for multiple parties, and with several viable parties in the running, votes are likely to be distributed in a way that no single party can win all seats in a given district. Ireland uses such a system.

One way to ensure that multiple parties will be seated might be to limit the number of candidates any party can run to a number lower than the total number of seats — more than one party is then guaranteed to win representation.

All the systems above are based on the traditional concept of one vote for one seat. But there is no need to limit ourselves to tradition. There are voting systems that enable the casting of multiple votes. One of these is “cumulative voting.” This is a system in which each voter casts as many votes as there are seats on a legislative body. A voter can vote for as many candidates, or cast all her votes for a single candidate, as she wishes. If the voter has five votes, he can cast all five votes for a preferred candidate, or split them among as many as five candidates if he so wishes. This is a system that enables a minority to earn representation if that minority — racial, ethnic, political or some other basis — votes cohesively.

Cumulative-voting proponents argue that this method encourages the creation of coalitions, encourages attention to issues because community groups can organize around issues and elect candidates that represent those interests, and encourages high turnouts. This is a complicated system, and probably appropriate only on the local level. A few U.S. cities do use this system.

Another alternative voting system is instant runoff. Here, voters cast a ballot by voting for as many candidates as they wish, ranking each candidate. First votes are tabulated and if there is a candidate who earns a majority of votes, the winner is seated. If not, the candidate with the fewest first votes is eliminated, and the second votes on ballots that voted for the eliminated candidate are now added to the first votes on the other ballots. If there is still not a winner, there are more rounds, each time with the lowest vote-getter eliminated, until a candidate has a majority. This system works the same way for multiple-seat elections.

The advantage of this system is that it encourages voters to cast ballots for the candidate they truly support, as their first choice, without the need to vote only for the “lesser evil.” A voter could still choose the “lesser evil” as the second choice to block the worst choice from winning. It also ensures that there is some level of majority support for the winning candidate rather than a simple plurality. Australia uses such a system, but with an added unnecessary, undemocratic requirement mandating that all candidates be ranked (otherwise the ballot is voided). Instant runoff can be democratic only with full freedom of choice.

That any representative system truly reflect the diversity of a society in all possible ways is the important thing, and that what can be accomplished at local levels or through direct democracy be decided there.

No matter what system is used, however, a true political democracy can only exist when there is economic democracy and a measure of equality — any economic system in which a handful dominate through their immense wealth will be corrupt and undemocratic. Otherwise, we are ultimately tinkering around the edges.