News from Venezuela is coming fast and furiously. On July 30, the country held a highly controversial election to appoint a new Constituent Assembly, which will rewrite the Constitution and rule Venezuela for up to two years. The vote unfolded amid the worst violence that Venezuela has seen in the four-month-old conflict that broke out in April. At least 10 people, including a candidate for the Assembly, were killed. Opposition protesters attacked 200 voting centers, according to the government. And eight National Police officers suffered serious burns from a roadside bomb set off in the wealthy, pro-opposition Caracas neighborhood of Altamira.
Since the vote occurred, Venezuela has been mired in controversy, particularly over the number of people who voted. (This figure is important because it is seen as a measure of the government’s level of popular support.) The government claims that over 8 million people voted. This number has been widely rejected as fraudulent not only by the opposition (which has a long history of falsely alleging electoral fraud), but also by Smartmatic, the company that supplied voting machines for the election; the sole opposition rector on Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE); and a number of prominent dissident Chavista officials, most notably former attorney general Luisa Ortega and Andrés Izarra, communications minister under both Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro.
If electoral fraud has occurred, it would be a severe blow to the government’s legitimacy, as well as a major departure from the past, when, in Jimmy Carter’s words, Venezuela’s election process was “the best in the world.” It is difficult to dismiss the current claims of electoral fraud out of hand, for five reasons. First, the CNE did not follow the procedures typically used to guarantee the vote’s accuracy: Voters’ fingers were not marked with indelible ink; the vote was not audited in the normal manner (partly due to the opposition boycott of the election); and the CNE has yet to release the full results (e.g., the number of valid and null votes), something that is normally done within hours of an election’s end. Second, it is not just the “usual suspects” (the opposition and the US government) claiming fraud this time. Third, Smartmatic has supplied Venezuela’s voting machines since 2004, but this is the first time that it has stated the election results were altered. According to Smartmatic’s CEO, the government’s announced vote total was off by at least 1 million. Fourth, this is the first time that a CNE rector has invalidated an election result outright. Finally, the continuing deterioration of Venezuela’s economy makes it hard to believe that support for the government has increased by 2.5 million since December 2015, when 5.6 million people voted for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in legislative elections. For their part, government supporters claim that not everyone who voted was Chavista: Some people allegedly voted not to support the government but rather to end the violence wracking the country. This claim is not implausible, but it does not address the first four points raised above.