- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

CARACAS, Venezuela — A leading member of Venezula’s opposition charged yesterday that touch-screen voting machines at at least 500 polling sites produced the same number of votes in favor of ousting President Hugo Chavez.

Such a result, said opposition lawmaker Nelson Rampersad, was statistically impossible and indicated that machines used in Sunday’s referendum were rigged to limit the number of votes calling for Mr. Chavez’s ousting.

Mr. Rampersad made his comments after a meeting of opposition leaders with former President Jimmy Carter and Oganization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria.

There was no immediate comment from Mr. Carter and Mr. Gaviria. The two high-profile international-election observers had planned to witness later yesterday a random sampling of results from 150 voting stations.

“We have no reason to doubt the integrity of the electoral process nor the accuracy of the referendum results,” Mr. Carter said at a news conference Tuesday.

Opposition leaders, citing what they said was new evidence of rigged machines, refused to participate in the audit.

“Under these conditions, we won’t accept this audit,” said Mr. Rampersad.

Mr. Carter and Mr. Gaviria have been working for two years to find a solution to the often bloody political crisis that has gripped Venezuela, the world’s fifth-largest oil-exporting nation.

The audit intended to compare electronic and paper ballots. But Mr. Rampersad said opponents were concerned that the paper ballots — which have been under the care of Venezuela’s military — may have been tampered with since Sunday’s votes.

He said the opposition wanted the audit to include an examination of the internal workings of the machines’ software.

The referendum election was carried out on touch-screen voting machines, which produced a paper receipt of each vote, much like an automated teller machine. Voters then deposited the receipts into a ballot box.

Mr. Chavez is praised by supporters for giving the poor majority better services and a voice in politics, while some critics fear he intends to install a Cuban-style dictatorship. Almost 58 percent voted Sunday to keep the leftist firebrand in office.

Leaders of an opposition coalition immediately cried fraud. Gunmen fired on an opposition demonstration on Monday, wounding seven persons, including a woman who later died. Dozens died in a failed coup against Mr. Chavez in April 2002 and in political protests over several years.

Mr. Carter has made it clear that the opposition would look foolish if it keeps crying foul after the audit, which he said should be completed by today.

In Washington, the State Department said Tuesday that the referendum should end this South American nation’s political crisis.

“The people of Venezuela have spoken,” spokesman Adam Ereli said. It was a conciliatory comment from the U.S. government, which often has harsh words for Mr. Chavez, a blunt critic of U.S. foreign policy.

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