Cindy is Venezuelan and lives in Vietnam. Her husband’s career as a pilot took them to Ho Chi Minh, two and a half hours away from the nearest Venezuelan embassy. For Cindy and her husband, distance is not a restriction to vote in Sunday’s election. Their problem is their official status overseas: with only a tourist visa, they lack legal status abroad—signaling their fate according to Venezuelan law.
Article 124 of the Ley Orgánica de Procesos Electorales (Organic Electoral Processes Law) establishes that those who wish to register to vote abroad must have a proof of residence or “any other element that denotes the legality of their permanence outside of Venezuela”. However, requirements to register have varied from consulate to consulate. Some ask for birth certificates to process registration, others require passports and identification cards issued by the country of residence. As a result, thousands of Venezuelans like Cindy will not be able to exercise their democratic right abroad.
On October 7, voters will cast their ballot at the nearest Venezuelan foreign mission to re-elect President Hugo Chávez or vote in former Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski. To date, 124 of the 127 possible voting centers have begun to get ready for Sunday’s vote. Damascus, Syria, Tel Aviv, Israel, and Asunción, Paraguay, are the exceptions due to political instability or a hiatus in diplomatic relations with Venezuela.
But the biggest obstacle for Venezuelans living outside the country was the closure of the largest voting center abroad. On January 8, 2012, the United States expelled Livia Acosta Noguera, Venezuela’s consul general in Miami. Five days later, Chávez ordered an “administrative close” of the consulate.
With 19,542 registered voters, the voting center in Miami was bigger than any other—including any voting center inside Venezuela itself. In June, however, Venezuela’s electoral authority, the Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council—CNE), announced that registrants in Miami could still vote. Except there was one not-so-small caveat: the closest place to do so was at the voting center in New Orleans, Louisiana—two hours away by air and 20 hours away by bus.
In New Orleans the process has hardly been easy. A smaller community of 638 Venezuelans had to undertake the task of accommodating thousands of unexpected voters. “They should have taken the vote to Miami, rather than bringing Miami to the vote,” said Anselmo Rodríguez, the head of the Comando Exterior Venezuela (CEV) in New Orleans, a pro-Capriles branch overseas, and one of many professionals who has dedicated hours to plan what will be the largest electoral mobilization Venezuela has ever seen.
One of the biggest issues was to find a place to hold the election. “The New Orleans consulate was not an option because it’s too small and on the 23rd floor of a large building. We needed a place that is accessible to a large number of voters,” explained CEV logistics coordinator Alcíades Velázquez. In August, after months of debate and little information, the New Orleans Consulate announced it will host the election at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in the city’s downtown area.
But the biggest challenge has been to mobilize Miami’s electorate some 1,700 miles away to cast their vote. Civil society organizations like Aerovotar have arranged six charter flights at no cost for 1,212 Miami-based passengers who will be able to use the service to vote in New Orleans. Still, thousands of Venezuelans will not make it to the election.
Despite all these obstacles, the number of voters registered abroad has significantly increased. Before the opposition primaries in February there were 56,000 Venezuelans registered to vote abroad; today, the number reaches 100,495. “The primaries were a big motivator to come together and get down to business,” explained CEV Electoral Coordinator Gabriela De Sola.
Social media and the emergence of young civil society organizations like Voto Donde Sea (Vote Everywhere), Voto Joven (Young Vote) and Embajadores del Voto (Vote Ambassadors) have also contributed to raise awareness and provide logistical support to CEV.
How to vote abroad
For those who vote abroad, the process is slightly different from voting in Venezuela. Voters living overseas will cast their ballots manually and will not have the characteristic purple finger after voting, since the CNE removed the permanent electoral ink from the electoral process for “logistical reasons.” Nevertheless, a valid or expired cédula de identidad (identity card) is the sine qua non to vote. All polling stations will open at 6:00 a.m. (local time) and close at 6:00 p.m. (local time)—but may stay open later if voters are at the voting center but have not cast their ballots by 6:00 p.m.
The CEV has recruited 600 eyewitnesses to monitor elections abroad, not only inside of the polling stations but also outside assisting voters and answering procedural questions. According to De Sola, 97 percent of the votes abroad are currently covered. In other words, only 3 percent of the consulates will operate without the presence of at least one electoral witness. Even Cuba and its 478 voters will have a witness.
Mere days away from the election, many aspects of the voting process still remain unclear. The most controversial is the tarjetón electoral (electoral ballot).
Voters on Sunday will receive a ballot with 39 boxes to select from, each with a candidate’s picture and political affiliation. Since multiple parties can have the same candidate, Chávez’ picture will appear in 12 boxes—all at the top of the ballot—and the choice of Capriles will be on 18 boxes, including the box of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), the opposition coalition. The other four candidates running for the presidency—Luis Reyes, Orlando Chirinos, María Bolívar and Reina Sequera—each have their boxes in the ballot as well.
Although this may at first seem clear, voters who select candidates appearing in four of the boxes will see their vote instantly discarded. Any vote for Capriles under the banner of the Manos por Venezuela party, the Piedra party or the Cambio Pana party will be considered null since the parties are no longer supporting the candidate. The ballot will also not be counted if the voter chooses Yoel Acosta Chirinos of the Vanguardia Bicentenaria Republicana party who dropped out of the race.
Another aspect that remains unclear is how to select the candidate in the ballot. Those who are voting manually should mark an “X” in the appropriate box of the tarjetón that features the voters’ preferred candidate or party; illegible marks will not count toward the final result. This is why De Sola recommends the following to voters: “Study the ballot before going to the polling center; locate the party of your preference; listen to instructions from the members of the voting table; and mark your votes clearly on the ballot.” Voters are only permitted three minutes to cast their vote.
Despite all this uncertainty and confusion, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has expressed that of the 92 electoral systems his organization has monitored, Venezuela’s is “the best in the world.” The only international observer will be the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations—Unasur), a regional bloc that has strong economic and ideological ties with the incumbent.
Once each voting center has completed their voting procedure, the results will be scanned and sent to Venezuela to be counted in the CNE’s first report. The vote-counting process is a public procedure, and voters are invited to stay to “take care of the votes,” De Sola explained.
The biggest international polling centers are: Miami/ New Orleans; Madrid; Barcelona; and the Canary Islands. Other polling centers in the U.S. are Houston, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, New York, and San Francisco. Each voting center will serve the residents of several neighboring states. For instance, the Venezuelan Consulate in New York comprises 3,446 residents from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Vermont.
For De Sola, Rodríguez, Velázquez, and many others who are making it possible for Venezuelans to vote abroad, their hard work and unconditional commitment are what sets this Venezuelan election apart from those of the past 14 years. Because what drives them is not just commitment; they are consumed by the most overwhelming hope and optimism to date since the Chávez-era began.
Andreina Seijas is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She works with Americas Quarterly and in the policy department at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Her Twitter account is @AndreinaSeijas.