Critics fear touchscreen voting machines in the August 15 vote could fail spectacularly, exacerbating a crisis over Chavez's rule that has polarized the world's No. 5 oil exporter and killed dozens in sporadic political violence.
The touchscreen machines on which a third of the U.S. electorate will vote in November are dangerously vulnerable to hackers, rigging and mechanical failure, computer scientists generally agree.
That didn't deter the Chavez-dominated Venezuelan Elections Council from choosing Smartmatic Corp., a little-known Boca Raton, Florida-based company, to provide similar technology -- albeit with a printed record of each vote -- for the referendum.
Smartmatic has never tested its machines in an election. And there has been no independent analysis or certification of its touchscreen system, although the council says the system will be audited before the vote.
In the United States, touchscreen computers are partly an attempt to eliminate hanging chads and other problems associated with the disputed U.S. presidential election results in Florida in 2000. Chavez often cites the Florida debacle to question George W. Bush's presidential credentials.
Yet in Venezuela, an electronic voting system produced that very same year what is widely known as the "mega-flop."
The biggest election in Venezuela's history was supposed to take place on May 28, 2000. More than 6,000 public offices were up for grabs, and Chavez, elected in 1998, was seeking re-election.
But two days before the vote, the Supreme Court postponed the election because of problems with computer software needed to tabulate votes and register more than 36,000 candidates. It was humiliating for election officials who had insisted things were going smoothly.
New automated system
The Omaha, Nebraska-based software provider, Election Systems & Software, blamed constant changes by election authorities in posting thousands of candidates.
E-voting did take place in July 2000 with few problems. But the postponement prompted authorities to reject any new deal with ES&S and to retire machines from the Spanish company Indra.
This year, a pro-Chavez majority on the five-member elections council voted to sign a $91 million contract with Smartmatic and its two partners, Venezuelan software company Bitza Corp., and CANTV, Venezuela's publicly held telephone company.
Council president Francisco Carrasquero said Smartmatic won based on three factors: security, cost, and technology transfer.
In the past Venezuela depended on Indra or other foreign firms to run its elections, Carrasquero said, while Smartmatic is providing Venezuela licenses for its systems.
The Smartmatic machines have never been tested in an election.
"Now it's in the council's hands, and we'll have autonomy designing automated elections," he said.
Carrasquero also argued that e-voting is the best way to avoid ballot-stuffing he said marred elections before Chavez came to power.
The Smartmatic deal includes 20,000 touchscreen voting machines and plans to run regional elections in September. Another $24 million contract for the referendum is in the works.
Two elections council members abstained from the Smartmatic vote. One of them, Ezequiel Zamora, declared: "I thought a process as simple as a referendum should be done manually. An untried system is always going to create doubt."
Chavez, whose term runs to 2007, can be recalled if the opposition gets more votes than the nearly 3.8 million he received in 2000. Elections would be held within 30 days to choose someone to serve out his term.
Chavez says the recall is an effort by a corrupt Venezuelan elite, backed by Washington, to end his leftist revolution on behalf of the poor. Venezuela's opposition accuses Chavez of gradually imposing an authoritarian regime.
Opponents initially objected to the e-voting plans, then asked for a simultaneous audit using a small sampling of the machines.
"Smartmatic is a company that hasn't tested its system anywhere in the world -- and it's going to test it here in Venezuela in a process as important as the recall referendum," complained Luis Planas, a member of the opposition COPEI party.
Suspicion deepened after The Miami Herald reported in May that a Venezuelan state industrial development fund had invested in Bitza, whose role is to integrate manual votes into the electronic system. Some 10 percent of voters, mostly in rural areas, will cast manual ballots.
Bitza quickly announced it would buy back the government's 28 percent stake.
Smartmatic President Antonio Mugica, who also co-founded Bitza, insists his firm is apolitical, and he brushed aside concerns about Smartmatic's inexperience.
"There is no voting system more secure than this one," Mugica boasted, tapping a machine's screen during a demonstration in his sleekly furnished Caracas office.
A square piece of paper popped out of the computer, a physical record of his vote. That, Mugica insists, is the system's primary safeguard against fraud: A paper trail that allows for a recount of any contested election.
Voters must deposit the slip into a ballot box before they can retrieve their IDs from polling officials.
The paper trail theoretically spares Smartmatic from a key complaint about touchscreen machines in the United States. Those machines won't have paper records in November, although a growing number of U.S. states will mandate them in future elections.
Mugica, an engineering graduate from Caracas' Simon Bolivar University, founded Smartmatic in 2000 with three other Venezuelans. The software firm handles its finance and sales in Boca Raton but does most research and development in Venezuela. It reported sales of $1.47 million for the six months ending June 30, 2003, according to Dun & Bradstreet.
Mugica said the firm began developing its electronic voting system in 2001, inspired partly by Venezuela's 2000 elections. He said the data storage and transmission will be encrypted, which should frustrate tampering.
But U.S. computer experts have found numerous security flaws in touchscreen machines, including incorrect use of cryptography, said Aviel D. Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
"Computers can be made to produce any outcome that you want without anybody really knowing that's what was done," Rubin said.
Note: August 9th-15th is Venezuela Week of Solidarity, a week of events in solidarity with the Venezuelan people, and to tell the US and UK governments (who've already backed one coup against Chávez) to keep their hands off Venezuela!...
Most of the events take place at the rampART in East London http://www.rampart.co.nr
Further info from firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.handsoffvenezuela.org