Ahead of Argentine Election, Voting Software Company Faces Scrutiny


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MADRID - A supplier of election technology whose software was used in highly suspect Venezuelan balloting, faces a fresh test of its products during a decisive election this Sunday in Argentina.

The company, Smartmatic, made headlines in 2017 by pulling out of Venezuela when the United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States accused the country's leftist government of massive vote tampering.

Smartmactic CEO Antonio Mujica, a Venezuelan engineer, said at the time that Venezuela's election authorities had grossly inflated the number of voters participating in the election of a special constituent assembly that was convened to change the constitution.

But government opponents had already filed a series of lawsuits, alleging major irregularities in previous elections administered by Smartmatic, which had worked with the Venezuelan government for more than a decade.

Fraud allegations

Cases of fraud alleged by the opposition included a 2013 vote that elevated then-Vice President Nicolas Maduro to the presidency, even as the country reeled from spiraling inflation and a scarcity of consumer products.

"In the few districts, which we managed to audit through unfettered access to the paper ballots, we found that the opposition had won by huge margins even as election authorities reported that they had gone for Maduro," said Adriana Vigilanza, a lawyer and international monitor of election processes who has led investigations into Venezuela's balloting.

She said the Venezuelan military and government militias, or "colectivos," prevented audits from being conducted in most districts, threatening local authorities with arrest if they allowed independent verification of ballot boxes.

The Venezuelan government contracted Smartmatic to supply election machinery when the company started up in Florida in 2004.

Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, faced a challenging recall referendum at the time and wanted to replace the Spanish firm INDRA, which had been Venezuela's main election technology provider.

The government acquired a 28% stake in Smartmatic's software provider, Bitza, which it sold back to the company when critics brought up conflict of interest concerns. Bitza and Smartmatic have interlocking directorships, and members of Venezuelan government agencies initially served on Bitza's board of directors, according to corporate records seen by VOA.

Smartmatic's website says the firm is present in several countries where it "designs technology to give authorities all the hardware, software and services they need to successfully manage each phase of the election process."

Election commissions throughout the world have used Smartmatic technology to process 4.6 billion votes "without a single discrepancy," according to the company.

There is no evidence that Smartmatic or its personnel have actively participated in election fraud. Mujica said it was his denunciation of irregularities in Venezuela's 2017 Constituent Assembly elections that alerted the international community.

But Smartmatic's past association with the Venezuelan government is raising alarms in other countries where its products are used.

Probe of Smartmatic acquisition

U.S. Congress members called for an investigation into Smartmatic's acquisition in 2005 of Sequoia voting systems, which manages election technology in 17 American states.

In the Philippines, members of congress have charged that Smartmatic allowed multiple servers to be connected to the vote-counting center instead of only one secure line as specified in the original government contract.

Controversy has most recently been triggered in Argentina over technology that Smartmatic is providing for presidential elections Sunday. Incumbent Alfonso Macri faces a tough reelection challenge against a rival from the Peronist party, which has dominated Argentine politics for decades.

Smartmatic has been contracted by Argentina's post office service to supply software for transmitting results through real time "telegrams" from voting centers to the national tallying office, according to government officials.

Pro-Macri congresswoman Elisa Carrio has charged that the telegrams were loaded with excessive votes for Peronista candidate Alberto Fernandez in a three-way primary, which he won two months ago. A judge has ordered the designation of judicial poll watchers to control the transmission of results.

"The machines are only as honest as the people managing them," said Vigilanza, the international elections monitor, who added that in the case of Venezuela, the transmission of results was tightly controlled by the central electoral commission dominated by Chavez and Maduro officials.

"There are a variety of ways of hacking electronic voting results," said Guillermo Salas, a Spain-based election computer expert.

Salas and Vigilanza both charge that in Venezuela, a two-way server allowed central authorities to manipulate numbers at local voting centers before they were published.

The U.S. Embassy in Caracas reported use of the two-way line in confidential diplomatic cables revealed by Wikileaks.

International political consultant Ray Cantillo, whose clients have ranged from former U.S. President Ronald Reagan to Spain's Socialist Party, said the United Nations should back the formation of an independent body to monitor electronic voting.

"A growing perception that elections are fixed is undermining democracy throughout the world," he said.