CARACAS, Venezuela — As the United States squabbles over its voter ID laws, Venezuelans will face one of the most rigorous systems in the hemisphere when they head to the polls Oct. 7.
After keying in an identification number, a voter's photo and name will pop up on a screen. Only after validating their identity with a thumb swipe over an electronic reader will the voting machine be activated.
The government and independent observers say the new system is one of the most sophisticated in the hemisphere. It's designed to weed out double voting and leave behind a paper and digital trail that makes it fast and easy to audit.
"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," former President Jimmy Carter said this month at The Carter Center.
But in polarized Venezuela — where President Hugo Chavez is facing one of the tightest races of his 14-year tenure — some are fretting that the new machines, and other quirks of the electoral system, may give the government an edge.
Independent auditors and the opposition's own technical team say the thumbprint reader attached to the Smartmatic voting machines scrambles the order of votes, so there's no way to know who voted for whom. But the fact that the identification system is visibly linked to the voting panel seems designed to generate doubts, said Ludwig Moreno, a member of the Voto Limpio election watchdog group.
"Let me be clear: the vote is most likely secret, but it doesn't appear to be secret," he said. "And that's why these machines were installed."
Voter privacy is a sensitive issue in Venezuela. In 2004, the names of more than 2.4 million people who had signed a presidential recall petition were released.
Government agencies were accused of firing and discriminating against people on the Lista Tascon. In 2005, Chavez called on his supporters to quit using the list, but it left many wary of openly opposing the administration.