Thursday, December 6, 2012

“We Have to Fix That”: The ICCPR, U.S. voting rights & lessons learned from Venezuela's process

(Part 1 of a 4-part series comparing voting in the United States and Venezuela, in light of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Part 2 is here; Part 3 is here; Part 4 is here.)
'I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time. By the way, we have to fix that.'
- President Barack Obama, Chicago, Illinois, United States, November 6, 2012

President Obama’s remarks came on the heels of an election he won, despite persistent problems with:
►Restrictions on early voting, voter registration drives, and voter ID legislation, and
►In some cases, third-party voter intimidation in the United States.
What seemed to be an ad-lib in Obama’s victory speech resonated deeply with my observations in the field on Election Day in the United States. And as a captain with the volunteer nonpartisan National Election Protection Coalition Field Program, I heard reports of third-party voter intimidation in southern and central California, and of other forms of voter suppression in Ohio and Arizona.
The statement that "we have to fix that" placed in some contrast my observations this fall in the field in Venezuela – another country that, like the United States, bears the burden of a racially discriminatory past and historical problems with access to a free and fair vote.
On October 7, along with 7 other members of the National Lawyers Guild International Committee delegation and over 200 international parliamentarians, election officials, academics, journalists, and judges, I had the opportunity to observe Venezuela's 2012 Presidential Elections. I was able to get a glimpse as to how Venezuela's democratic process functions on a procedural, technical level. And I saw the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in action. In the 4-part series that I begin with this post, I will set forth my own observations and comparisons of the 2012 elections processes in Venezuela and the United States – observations informed by the guarantees of the international civil rights covenant.
Photo Credit: NLG International Committee Delegation 
from the U.S., CNE Accompañamiento Internacional 
de las Elecciones Venezolanas del 7 de octubre, 2012
Article 25 of the ICCPR requires that every citizen shall have the right and opportunity without unreasonable restrictions to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; “to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections…by universal and equal suffrage and…by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;” and “to have access, on general terms of equality, to public service.”
After reviewing the Carter Center’s pre-electoral report examining Venezuela’s electoral process and procedural guarantees, former President Jimmy Carter stated:

'As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.'

Our delegation was impressed with the active engagement of Venezuelan citizens and their ownership of the electoral process. Interviewing participants from across the political spectrum, we did not encounter any hesitation or fear in the expression and dissemination of highly polarized, opposing political opinions. Members of the electoral mesa, monitors and opposing party witnesses at every polling station, were collegial, confident in the process, and shared a common sense of dignity, pride, respect, and enthusiasm in protecting each individual voter's right to a universal, direct, and secret suffrage.
Venezuela’s 2009 Organic Law of Electoral Processes mandate the approval, participation, and signature of all four sworn citizen members of each of the 39,322 constituted electoral mesas at over 13,850 polling centers (totaling 168,000 members across the country), as well as least two opposing party witnesses at each of the 17 auditable phases of the electoral process.
Photo Credits: Swiss and Uruguay Delegation, 
CNE Accompañamiento Internacional 
de las Elecciones Venezolanas del 7 de octubre, 2012

Photo Credit: NLG International Committee Delegation from the U.S., CNE
Accompañamiento Internacional de las Elecciones Venezolanas del 7 de octubre, 2012
While we, as international observers and accompaniers, made suggestions for refining the system – including adding machines to decrease long lines and waiting times, and higher privacy screens around the voting-machine stations – we determined that none of these logistical challenges had any significant impact on the legitimacy of the results.
As the New York Times observed on October 8:
'People stood in line for hours, although the voting appeared in most cases to run smoothly. Venezuela uses a touch-screen electronic voting system, and voters are identified with a digital thumbprint reader; technical problems at some polling places caused long delays and, in some, a resort to backup paper ballots. Polling places were told to keep working until everyone in line at closing time had a chance to vote.'
Digital video footage from the Associated Press, available here, might give one a glimpse into the experience, which subsequent posts will compare with those of voters in the United States.

(Tomorrow's post: Comparing electoral participation in Venezuela and in the United States)

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