Schoen has little doubt what happened. "I think it was a massive fraud," he told me. "Our internal sourcing tells us that there was fraud in the central commission." This was not the first time he has encountered such things. "The same thing happened in Serbia in 1992, by [President Slobodan] Milosevic. He did it again in the local elections in 1996. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people died. Had he been caught [in this fraud] in 1992, this would not have happened."
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In Venezuela this year, as in Serbia in 1992, I think it's overwhelmingly likely that the exit poll was far closer than the officially announced results to the way people actually voted.
Unhappily, the prospects for Venezuela are not much better than they were for Serbia. The Chavez regime has been given a patina of respectability by Jimmy Carter and the New York Times editorial page that it almost certainly does not deserve. Warren Mitofsky was not involved in Venezuela, and is a competitor of Penn Schoen, but he draws similar conclusions to Schoen's. "I find it extraordinary that, with only one exit poll and no quick count, people are willing to take one side's word," he told me. "This doesn't smell good."
Independent exit polls are one of the guarantors of democracy in countries emerging from or under authoritarian rule. Political junkies may think it amusing that there is such a wide discrepancy between an exit poll and official results. But for people in Venezuela and perhaps in other parts of Latin America it's more likely to be tragic.