Vote of Confidence: Kenya and Venezuela

2017 has been as news-heavy as any year in recent memory. Amidst the barrage of stories that streaked across our screens this past year, two, in particular, caught the eye of the staff here at Votem. Contested elections in Kenya and Venezuela led to massive protests and civil unrest in both countries. Opponents of the end results of the elections argued that the results were inaccurate and did not represent the will of the people. Most news outlets understandably covered the tumultuous demonstrations in the streets, but we at Votem were prompted to ask one question: how exactly were these elections botched?

As mentioned in the introduction to “Vote of Confidence” published last week on Medium, the actual process of voting is rarely a topic of media coverage. News outlets instead focus most of their energy on the lead-up and subsequent results of elections. But, in the cases of Kenya and Venezuela, much of this unrest was sparked by an inability to reliably and transparently administer an election. Before diving into that point, however, it is important to provide some context.

On September 1st, the Kenyan Supreme Court ruled to annul the results of the country’s August 8 Presidential Election after finding that the Election Commission responsible “failed to conduct the (election) in a manner consistent with the dictates of the constitution.” The decision was a blow to the presumptive victor, Uhuru Kenyatta, and a major victory for his opponent, Raila Odinga. Kenyatta’s supporters took to the streets to protest the annulment while Odinga’s supporters celebrated. An announcement that the election would be rerun within 60 days of the ruling, however, spurred Odinga and his supporters to protest again on account of there not being time for a legitimate runoff. Kenyatta ran virtually unopposed and won 95% of the vote as demonstrations rocked the East African nation.

On July 30th, Venezuela erupted as President Nicolás Maduro presided over the election of a new Constituent Assembly, which would have the power to draft an entirely new constitution. Despite millions taking to the streets to protest before and after the election, the government claimed that 41.5% of eligible voters turned out and all 542 seats were won by members of Maduro’s party. Smartmatic, the Venezuelan company that administered the election, stated that they believed at least 1 million votes were tampered with while the majority of the international community rebuked the results as a sham.

Both aforementioned cases resulted in hundreds of lives lost and persistent unrest that has had lasting effects. While the overall political implications became abundantly clear, the initial impetus for these events was the inability of a government to operate an election free of controversy.

Had both elections, and for that matter any election on earth, been run in a way that all parties involved could verify that the results were accurate, the election outcomes would be easily accepted. In the United States, we bore witness in 2000 to a Presidential Election that had to be decided by the Supreme Court because certain paper ballots could not be read accurately. While people may not have rioted in the streets, the result of a process that is central to American civic society came down to nine people because some folks didn’t punch through their paper ballots hard enough.

If anything, Kenya and Venezuela serve as glaring examples that elections still rely on and mandate mutual trust between government and constituency. Governments are left as the ultimate decider in whether or not an election was conducted fairly, leaving people to wonder if the results should be trusted. The electoral controversy in these two countries demonstrates that the election itself is the lynchpin of any successful democratic process. While this article only treats these two cases summarily, their implications for global democracy are both harrowing and clear.

There is a notable quote, which is conveniently attributed to the prototypically evil Josef Stalin, that states “it is not the people that vote that count but rather the people who count the votes.” In the wake of the events in Kenya and Venezuela, and to a different extent the 2016 elections in the U.S., it is important to push towards a voting solution that puts the power of the polls in the hands of the people.

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