Venezuelan Elections Must Include the Diaspora

Venezuela is experiencing an unprecedented economic, political, and humanitarian crisis that has caused more than 5.3 million people to flee the country in the last five years. As the international community has consistently argued, a critical measure to secure a transition to the rule of law is to restore a legitimate government through free, fair, and transparent presidential elections. These elections will only be legitimate if fundamental democratic norms are respected, including enabling the Venezuelan diaspora to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

The following commentary builds on a recent CSIS piece: Free and Fair Presidential Elections in Venezuela Are Overdue. In it, the authors make the case that although Venezuela is constitutionally required to hold legislative elections by December 2020, only presidential elections can contribute to ending the ongoing constitutional crisis, influence sanctions policy, and alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people.

This piece focuses on the importance of registering voters and coordinating out-of-country voting (OCV) for a transitional election in Venezuela. The analysis sketches the key regulatory, logistical, and financial hurdles to implementing OCV, places Venezuela in comparative perspective, and provides initial actionable recommendations for the international community.

Out-of-country Voting

Modern OCV dates as far back as the United States Civil War, and at least 115 countries currently have OCV provisions. The scale of these electoral operations vary vastly, as OCV has been used in both regular and transitional elections. While the United States and other countries allow expats to vote from abroad, OCV is also often used in post-conflict contexts. In the Afghan presidential elections of 2004, for example, OCV was used to enfranchise millions of refugees living in Pakistan and Iran.

OCV operations vary depending on the political context, budget, and the location of the diaspora. Some countries allow citizens to vote by mail. Others establish in-person polling stations in locations with large diaspora populations or allow citizens to vote at embassies and consulates. These methods are sometimes used in tandem. For example, in 2004, the Philippines allowed postal voting only in countries deemed to have efficient postal systems. Filipino migrants living elsewhere voted at in-person voting stations, consulates, or embassies.

Two Possible Scenarios for Venezuela

As of now, there are two scenarios which could lead to a presidential election in Venezuela.

First, the Maduro regime agrees to hold presidential elections while remaining in power and Maduro or someone aligned with the regime participates as a candidate. These elections would be carried out by a newly designated Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) and would be subject to scrutiny and oversight from the international community. For the opposition to consider participating in such an election, the Maduro regime would need to be party to a political agreement that establishes minimum conditions of electoral integrity. OCV in this scenario would nevertheless draw from Venezuela’s existing regulatory framework.

In the second scenario, Maduro leaves power before a presidential election takes place. After reaching a national agreement, the international community steps in to administer all aspects of a transitional election, including OCV. This scenario requires a more extensive coordinated effort by the international community, perhaps comparable to the 1996 Bosnian presidential election, in which over 600,000 refugees were registered to vote. This election was administered by the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, which established a Refugee Elections Steering Group that worked with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to coordinate the electoral operations of OCV. Another example is the Afghan presidential election of 2004, which was managed by the Joint Electoral Management Board (JEMB) in cooperation with the United Nations Mission to Afghanistan. As in the Bosnian case, the JEMB contracted the IOM to carry out OCV.

Regulatory Changes Matter

If the first electoral scenario occurs, OCV would be governed by the Ley Orgánica de Proceso Electoral (LOPRE) and corresponding General Regulations (RGLOPE). LOPRE stipulates that OCV be administered by the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE), a body that has been notoriously biased toward the Maduro regime. The CNE will need to be overhauled for an election to take place, as has been repeatedly recognized by domestic and international observers as an essential first step to establish minimally acceptable voting conditions in Venezuela.

But even if the CNE is overhauled, the diaspora will face barriers to registering and voting under the current LOPRE framework. Notably, LOPRE stipulates that Venezuelans can vote out-of-country only insofar as they have legal status in their country of residence while presenting a valid Venezuelan ID, both of which the majority of Venezuelan refugees and migrants do not have. The National Assembly will need to put in place a bill to adjust the residency requirements, decide what sort of legal status Venezuelans would need to obtain in order to vote, and specify the type of documentation that Venezuelans would need to provide. In doing so the legislature will need to work with the Lima Group and other host nations to grant migrants provisional status that can enable them to vote. They will need to widen the scope to accept Venezuela IDs, including those that have expired. Venezuelans living abroad have a remarkably difficult time obtaining these documents given the country’s delayed and corrupt bureaucracy. The Assembly may also need to regulate how much of the diaspora will be eligible to vote based on factors such as when they fled the country or whether they intend to return.

Even for Venezuelans who do have legal status, the current OCV system is flawed. Between 2014 and 2018, only four percent of Venezuela’s diplomatic missions carried out systematic procedures to register voters. In addition, several countries that recognize Guaidó as interim president are limited in terms of resources and capacity. The international community together with the National Assembly will need to provide financial and technical assistance to Venezuela’s diplomatic missions abroad to make sure they carry out OCV tasks accordingly.

Electoral Operations Matter Even More

Given Venezuela’s political and institutional crisis, the (electoral) management body in charge of OCV—whether a subcommittee of the CNE, a multilateral organization, or a combination of both—will need to be particularly attuned to threats of fraud and must avoid external political influence.

It is therefore imperative that the body in charge of organizing OCV establish a transparent and inclusive process by which OCV-related decisions can be made. This may entail hosting public hearings in diaspora communities, publicly releasing the basis for each important operational decision, or delegating key decisions to the diaspora and civil society groups. Lessons learned in the July 16, 2017 referendum held by the opposition, where more than 7 million Venezuelans voted, can offer a way forward. Moreover, there must be a concerted effort to conduct voter education campaigns, both about their political rights and the voting process. The CNE is technically responsible for this; even in an election administered by the CNE, however, diaspora groups, non-governmental organizations, and multilateral organizations will play a crucial role that needs to be well coordinated.

Furthermore, preparing a voter roll and registering out-of-country voters will be logistically and technologically complicated. The diaspora is spread across more than six countries where some 80 percent of the migrants now reside—many of whom are living in dire conditions. This will require paid staff and volunteers to reach migrant populations, to have access to secure registration technology, and to be trained to register vulnerable electors. The registration process must be factored into the electoral calendar and must begin at least four months before an election is convened.

Once voters are registered, OCV organizers and stakeholders must be prepared to address obstacles in the actual voting process. These obstacles vary depending on the method of OCV used, though each method will require paid staff, volunteers, and office space. For physical polling stations, OCV organizers will need to understand how the diaspora is geographically distributed and where polling stations need to be placed to ensure that all enfranchised migrants—and not just the elites—are able to participate. Decisionmakers will need to evaluate how best to keep voters safe, certify and transport votes, and process voter data. Decisionmakers should draw from lessons learned in other contexts, including the 2005 Honduran presidential elections, in which all external votes from Miami and Washington D.C. were discarded because the ballots had not been properly certified and could not be sent to the data processing center.

Postal voting, by contrast, will require OCV organizers to assess the security of various countries’ postal systems in order to prevent fraud. Organizers will then need to decide whether postal votes will be sent to one central location or various distribution centers.

Finally, though OCV is the focus of this piece, it is important to emphasize that OCV will not happen in isolation; it will be implemented simultaneously with an internal election—a complex operation that will face just as many, if not more, security and logistical challenges.

Recommendations for the International Community

OCV is a complex process that requires technical knowledge, financial resources, and oversight. When a presidential election is scheduled, the Venezuelan diaspora, international community, and other relevant stakeholders need to be ready to respond effectively and engage with the voting age diaspora. When a presidential election is scheduled, the international community must have in place a roadmap to engage the Venezuelan diaspora through OCV. And that roadmap needs to be communicated both within the diaspora community as well as within Venezuela so that there are no surprises which could produce “fake news alleging fraud.” Some specific recommendations follow.

Bilateral and Third-party Agreements

Host countries and international organizations will need to sign memoranda of understanding (MOU) with the only legitimate democratic institution left in Venezuela, the National Assembly. Though the agreements will vary from party to party, they should: (1) establish the scope of the party’s logistical and financial responsibilities; (2) establish mechanisms for ensuring transparency and integrity, including specific steps to ensure the host country or organization does not interfere or exert undue political influence in the election; and (3) guarantee the safety of voters within the host country

Technical Assistance

Both host countries and international organizations, such as the IOM, should provide geographic and demographic data to inform OCV decisions. International organizations will provide extensive technical support throughout the process by drawing from lessons learned in other large-scale OCV operations. Host countries, such as Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, the United States, and Spain, must be prepared to facilitate OCV. They can, among other things, streamline customs processing for electoral staff, help locate office space, loan voting equipment (if physical polling stations are used) and provide security at polling stations or processing centers.

Financial Support

OCV will be financed differently depending on which electoral scenario plays out, but in both scenarios, costs will be borne to varying degrees by Venezuelans, international organizations, host countries, and the voters themselves. The international community and the interim government must assess the cost of electoral operations for out-of-country elections, a process which experience suggests is more expensive per vote than in-country voting.

Electoral Observation

Finally, the international community must conduct electoral international observation and monitor the OCV process to ensure that there is no fraud. Monitoring can and should be done by several institutions simultaneously, including non-governmental organizations, the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the United Nations.

Margarita R. Seminario is deputy director and senior fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Claudia Fernandez is a research intern with the CSIS Future of Venezuela Initiative.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Margarita R. Seminario

Margarita R. Seminario

Former Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Americas Program

Claudia Fernandez

Intern, Future of Venezuela Initiative