Are Venezuela’s Unofficial Referendum Results Credible?

The only thing more dubious than the opposition’s unofficial referendum is the media coverage surrounding it.

By Ryan Mallett-Outtrim – Venezuelanalysis.com

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Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled parliament, speaks following an opposition-organized vote to measure public support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution, in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 17, 2017.
(Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled parliament, speaks following an opposition-organized vote to measure public support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution, in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 17, 2017. (Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
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On Sunday, Venezuelans rebuked their president by “a staggering margin” – at least, that’s according to the New York Times.

“More than 98 percent of voters sided with the opposition in answering three yes-or-no questions drafted with the aim of weakening Mr. Maduro’s legitimacy days before his constituent assembly is expected to convene,” the Times reported.

In fact, across the political spectrum, the western media has almost entirely agreed on the same narrative; a narrative that says over 7 million Venezuelans just voted against President Nicolas Maduro’s proposed National Constituent Assembly (ANC). On the face of it, this is an absolutely amazing turnout in a country with a population of just over 31 million, where around half the people oppose the opposition's current protests. It’s also an unbelievable logistical achievement, given the opposition’s vote was conducted without support from the state. This narrative is so extraordinary, it must surely have some equally extraordinary evidence to back it up, right?

Well, not quite.

A bit of context

For anyone who hasn’t been following Venezuela recently, the ANC is an assembly of citizens which can create proposals to amend the country’s constitution. It's worth noting though that any ANC proposal will have to be put to a referendum before becoming law.

Maduro called for the formation of the ANC back in May, and members are set to be elected on July 30. The Venezuelan leader has argued the ANC could provide an open forum for ordinary Venezuelans to discuss the state of their country, and make big changes if necessary. However, the opposition has vowed to boycott the ANC, and has accused Maduro of planning on stacking the assembly with government supporters. The plan has even been criticized by some of Maduro’s former allies; most notably his own attorney general, Luisa Ortega.

Ortega has argued a referendum is legally needed for the ANC to be called in the first place – a claim recently dismissed by the country’s highest court.

Amid the controversy, the opposition decided to hold their own unofficial referendum on whether or not the ANC should go ahead. It’s this referendum the New York Times referred to when it reported Maduro’s “staggering” loss.

The opposition’s unofficial referendum

According to the New York Times, “Shortly before midnight, a group of Venezuelan university administrators tasked with overseeing the vote count said that more than 7,186,000 ballots had been cast.”

On close inspection, this figure in and of isn't at all "staggering", as the Times suggested. Venezuela's voting population is around 20 million, meaning around 36 or 37 percent of the electorate joined this unofficial referendum. That's not at all an overwhelming figure, and lines up somewhat with the opposition's typical electoral results of recent years.

Moving on though, while the Times and other western media outlets appeared to assume this figure is credible, Venezuela's government has already moved to cast doubt over the outcome, alleging the figures were inflated by tricks like double voting. State media outlet teleSUR even reported they were able to double vote with total ease. That's concerning, but it's not solid evidence double voting was a widespread problem. The government has also claimed the opposition figures show 693,000 Venezuelans abroad cast votes, despite there apparently only being around 101,000 registered voters actually living outside the county. One administration official claiming only around 2 million votes were cast. No compelling evidence has been presented to support this figure though, so there’s no good reason to simply assume it’s true.

So that leaves us with one important question:

Are the opposition’s results accurate?

To answer this question, all we need to do is look at the feedback of any unbiased electoral observers present on the day. Frustratingly though, the opposition deemed not to invite impartial observers to oversee its vote. Mistrustful of the government, they also conducted the unofficial referendum without the support of the country’s electoral authority, the CNE. Instead, the opposition merely invited a handful of their own high profile international supporters as monitors, such as Mexico’s Vicente Fox, Colombia’s Andres Pastrana and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla and Miguel Angel Rodriguez. As icing on the cake, they also brought in Bolivia’s ex-president and former IMF/World Bank consultant Jorge Quiroga. If you think Quiroga counts as a neutral observer, bear in mind that he recently described Venezuela under Maduro as “the next North Korea”.

However, just because there were no impartial observers on the day, that doesn’t mean future researchers can’t go back and independently verify the vote – unless the opposition goes through with a proposal to burn the ballots. This unusual measure is supposedly aimed at protecting the identities of voters, though it also means there will be no way for anyone to ever question the tally.

On top of all this, the opposition has a poor track record when it comes to electoral transparency. Their attempt to lobby for a recall referendum against Maduro last year failed in part because electoral officials identified over 600,000 allegedly fraudulent names on an opposition petition. According to Venezuela’s electoral authority, these invalid names included those of deceased persons, children and felons who are ineligible to vote. Some of the names even appeared to have simply been made up.

So to summarize, we have an election result that’s simply extraordinary (some would say extraordinarily dubious). Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but instead we have no publicly available evidence, no impartial observers, and scant chance for independent verification. On top of this, those who we’re supposed to uncritically believe have seemingly been caught peddling inflated electoral figures in the past.

Again, none of this indicates the opposition’s unverified electoral outcome of 7 million is false, it just means they should be taken with a grain of salt. The problem is that it can’t be considered credible without evidence or independent verification – neither of which the opposition has offered the public, or the media. Yet The New York Times made no effort to point this out to its readers – though to be fair, neither did most other major western news outlets. Across the board, it seems that the media just assumes opposition claims are established truth.

Looking closer at the numbers

On top of all this, there’s a theory floating around Chavista circles that the opposition’s unofficial referendum results are statistically impossible. According to the pro-opposition newspaper El Nacional, on Sunday the opposition organized roughly 2000 voting centers nationwide, with a total of 14,800 individual booths. That means that on election day, each booth must have received an average of 485 votes. Yet the voting centers were only open for nine hours, from 7am to 4pm. That that means each booth had to receive 54 ballots per hour: that’s around one every minute.

Logistically speaking, that might seem like a tall order at first glance, but it’s not at all impossible. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that in a single minute, voters could enter, register, fill out their ballot and submit it. It would demand some serious mechanical efficiency on behalf of organizers with no state support. The case is also bolstered if we take the opposition at their word, and presume pretty much every voting center was full to capacity all day, from 7am to 4pm, presumably with long lines and plenty of staff on hand.

The problem is that this didn’t happen.

Venezuelanalysis had journalists visiting polling centers throughout the day, and there were indeed plenty of crowds early on. However, by early afternoon, these crowds had largely tapered off in all but the staunchest of opposition enclaves our journalists visited. My colleague Lucas Koerner reported that on Margarita Island, many of the stations he visited were pretty much empty by midday. As we saw from crunching the numbers, if polling stations weren’t overflowing throughout the day, then it might seem hard to imagine how they managed to average one voter every minute per voting table – and our journalists saw plenty of empty centers.

It’s unclear if our journalists were the only ones to experience this. Though admittedly, when it came to providing photos of crowds of voters, Spain’s El Pais newspaper seemingly had to resort to using shots of Chavistas voting in a mock constituent assembly vote, and mislabel them as opposition voters at the unofficial referendum.

Now, it’s totally possible there’s a reasonable explanation for all this. After all, there has been some confusion around the exact number of voting booths, with some media outlets reporting the number of individual booths at around 14,400 – a figure notably lower than El Nacional’s 14,800. It also only makes our problem more acute. Meanwhile, the Miami Herald somehow got hold of the ridiculously low number of 2,300 voting tables. It’s almost certainly a minor translation error; though if that number is accurate, it would mean votes were being cast at a breakneck speed of one ballot every 10-15 seconds, at every booth, all day, with no stops. It’s a wonder anyone involved had time to breathe, let alone read, fill out and cast their vote.

It’s also possible some of the voting centers remained open late, which could likewise help make our 7 million figure much more realistic. Even then though, this level of speed is certainly not something the Venezuelan government can pull off. If we look at the data from the 2013 presidential election, we can estimate the official electoral system clocked in an average of somewhere between a minute and a half to two minutes per voter. That context suggests that while the opposition vote was pretty fast, it wasn’t impossibly so.

Comparing the unofficial and official elections

It’s worth noting though that at after the 2013 election, the opposition cried fraud (just like the government is doing now), and the international media was more than happy to give them a megaphone. The fact that 170 international accompaniment monitors generally gave the election good grades (including the Carter Center) simply wasn’t considered convincing enough to invalidate allegations of electoral fraud. Government transparency surrounding polling data likewise wasn’t enough to shake off the media consensus that the 2013 election was rigged. In fact, the validity of Maduro’s election victory the following year was also questioned fiercely by the western media. For example, The Atlantic notably described the 2013 vote as clearly a “rigged contest”, while in 2012 CNN’s David Frum went as far as describing Chavez as “a villain out of a Batman movie: buffoonish and sinister in equal measure”.

Writing on the 2012 vote, Frum rhetorically asked, “Is the result legitimate?”

“That's hard to say. Venezuela has not invited any international election observers since 2006,” he concluded.

Of course, that’s not entirely true. Venezuela did indeed switch from a system of international observation to accompaniment back in 2006, including refusing observation from the Organization of American States (OAS). This latter move has been widely condemned in the US media, despite the fact the US itself has also opted out of OAS observation. Other countries that have done the same include Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Canada. In either case, the accompaniment missions have almost universally approved of Venezuela’s electoral system. Arguably the world’s most respected electoral monitor, the Carter Center, heaped praise on the 2012 vote. Nonetheless, the Times itself was more than happy to give space to allegations of unfairness. Of course, many other respected bodies have recognized official Venezuelan elections of past years as free and fair, including the European Union and even the Organization of American States.

Meanwhile, the opposition’s allegations of fraud in recent years have been solidly debunked by statistical analysis.

So overall, there’s little room for doubt that Venezuela’s official elections are free and fair, and consistently deliver credible results that reflect the will of the electorate. Yet for some reason, the western media remains unconvinced. Despite the facts established by actual election experts, the media, from the far right to supposed progressives, largely condemn Venezuela’s official elections as unfree, unfair or worse. To the media, the clear, indisputable evidence in favor of electoral credibility simply doesn’t cut it. Some would say this is a healthy display of skepticism. If so, why did this skepticism get thrown out the window for the opposition’s unofficial, nontransparent election? Instead, the opposition’s unofficial election is simply presumed to be credible – despite no evidence supporting the extraordinary outcome, no impartial observers, no independent verification and a total lack of transparency.

None of this would surprise anyone who has some experience writing about Venezuela. When it comes to mainstream journalism and this particular South American country, it’s a well established industry norm that evidence is totally irrelevant: whatever the Venezuelan government says is immediately assumed to be false, while the word of the opposition is taken as gospel. Critically assessing the claims of either side is mostly taboo.

A prime example of the latter was noted by FAIR back in 2014, when a story about an apparent massacre in Caracas went viral. Written by opposition activist and prominent blogger Francisco Toro, the supposed massacre was later revealed to simply have never happened. Around the same time, Toro also penned an article for the New York Times that was found to be factually inaccurate. It might seem strange then that when The Washington Post wanted a credible opinion on Sunday’s unofficial referendum, they made a beeline for (guess who?) Toro.

Questions worth asking?

To conclude, there’s no solid evidence Sunday’s unofficial referendum was fraudulent. In fact, the results actually look fairly similar to the opposition's typical electoral outcomes. Yet despite what the likes of Toro would have you believe, there are some serious questions worth asking about the results, which in themselves are arguably not all that reliable. Without doubt, this was clearly the least credible and least transparent election to take place in Venezuela in recent years. It’s startling then that the international media appears to have collectively decided this vote was somehow more reliable than the official elections of recent years.

Speaking more broadly, it’s a shame coverage of Venezuela has come to this, with western audiences being treated to little more than opposition press released dressed up as journalism. After all, Sunday’s referendum was itself an opposition public relations stunt, mostly aimed at showing their strength and rallying supporters. There’s nothing wrong with such a stunt (the ruling socialist party holds rallies all the time), so long as we all remember that PR and reality don’t always walk hand in hand.

Meanwhile, none of this is suggests that everything the Venezuelan government claims must be true (it sometimes isn’t). Rather, journalists have an obligation to critically assess the claims made by both sides of the political spectrum, and present their audiences with the facts. When this obligation is forsaken, it’s not just audiences who suffer. The subjects of reports – in this case the people of Venezuela – are deprived of a voice, and their stories are left untold. The end result is that all of us, no matter our nationalities or political inclinations, are left poorer. All the while, the truth drifts further into evanescence.