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Originally published Tuesday, December 23, 2008 at 3:46 PM

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Surprising lessons from Venezuela's 2004 election

Election observers Larry Hildes and Karen Weill think the Venezuela election council's strides in running a fair and credible election have some lessons for U.S. elections. Among the strategies that impressed them — paper trails for electronic voting and providing results only after polls close, results are counted and audited.

Special to The Times

IN many ways, 2008 was the year of the elections. That normalcy seemed to carry the day during balloting Nov. 4 and was a relief for us, a husband-and-wife legal team from Bellingham. The situation was quite harrowing in 2004, when we served as monitors in Florida and saw — in just one example — voting machines give one man a "Bush" result no matter how many times he pressed "Kerry."

There are signs some improvements have been made since that debacle; however, we still have a lot to learn about how to run smooth elections. Interestingly, those lessons are increasingly coming from abroad.

We recently joined more than 130 observers from around the world in Venezuela to monitor state and local elections Nov. 23. What we saw there contradicts the Bush administration's portrayal of Venezuela. We witnessed a vocal, uncensored media unrestrained in its criticism of the Chávez government. Opposition candidates campaigned without impediment, giving speeches and holding rallies.

We saw an open democratic election that allowed fair voting for all parties. We also found an electoral system designed to encourage voting and ensure that anyone who wishes to vote can do so.

Believe it or not, we found a system far more transparent, inclusive and accountable than what we observed in the past as monitors in the U.S. Unlike in Florida in 2004, we saw a process in Venezuela where no one tried to deny voters their voice. The polls stayed open hours later than planned to accommodate long lines and an unexpectedly high turnout for a regional election.

For months beforehand, Venezuela's electoral council held an educational campaign explaining how to use the new polling machines and demonstrated how the voting system worked. The council ensured the vote results could be checked through a process in which electronic machines produce a paper trail voters can compare with the machine and change if necessary. Finally, audits were made to 55 percent of the paper ballots before the results were announced — four to five times the amount needed statistically to rule out fraud.

The electoral council under the controversial Chávez has worked tirelessly to prove to the Venezuelan electorate, and to the world, that it has eliminated fraud. The new voting machines are a response to the blatant ballot-box stuffing of the 1990s. The paper trail is a response to flawed voting machines in the U.S. and elsewhere.

After last year's referendum, the National Lawyer's Guild concluded that, amid intense scrutiny, "[Venezuela] has developed one of the most advanced electoral systems in the region, if not the world." U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in a 2006 hearing on Venezuela, remarked "Florida is not even doing that with a paper trail. So maybe Venezuela will teach Florida something."

At our final stop on Election Day, a polling station that was supposed to close at 4 p.m. was still admitting voters as we were leaving at 5:10. According to other observers we met, voting centers accommodated extra long lines throughout Venezuela. This meant the results were not announced until 10 or 12 hours later after all polls had closed, tallying was complete, and the results had been audited.

Wouldn't that be a nice change in the U.S.? Barack Obama was named the winner two minutes after the West Coast polls officially closed, whether or not people were still in line (as in California) or officials were still counting the absentee ballots (as in our home state of Washington).

As our political system evolves here in the U.S., we must remember democracy is not an end unto itself. It is a vehicle by which we realize the vision that we have of the future, and it is one that belongs in the hands of the people, not the power brokers.

Venezuela has rejected the top-down politics that were once the status quo. Doubtless, the country is paying the price through threats and interference. Bush government agencies contributed $4.7 million to the campaigns of Chávez foes in Zulia and Tachira states.

In the U.S., Fox News twice attempted to strike fear in potential Obama supporters by portraying him as a "socialist" who would follow in that "dictator Chávez's shoes."

The truth is hard to find, unless you can go search it out on the ground, as we did in Venezuela. From every attempt we made to assess the conduct of the government, we found a process that was trusted and reflective of the will of the people. We in the U.S. can still stand to learn some lessons about how to run a fraud-free and protected election, if only we are willing.

Larry and Karen Weill practice civil rights law in Bellingham. They volunteered as election monitors in Tampa, Fla., with the Election Protection Coalition in 2004.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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