The Americas Blog

El Blog de las Americas

The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media.

Spanish description lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nunc in arcu neque. Nulla at est euismod, tempor ligula vitae, luctus justo. Ut auctor mi at orci porta pellentesque. Nunc imperdiet sapien sed orci semper, finibus auctor tellus placerat. Nulla scelerisque feugiat turpis quis venenatis. Curabitur mollis diam eu urna efficitur lobortis.

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts addressing a report by Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover covering the 2019 presidential election in Bolivia. Their conclusions do not hold up to scrutiny, as we observe in our report Nickels Before Dimes. Here, we expand upon various claims and conclusions that Escobari and Hoover […]
This is the seventh in a series of blog posts addressing a report by Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover covering the 2019 presidential election in Bolivia. Their conclusions do not hold up to scrutiny, as we observe in our report Nickels Before Dimes. Here, we expand upon various claims and conclusions that Escobari and Hoover […]
Escobari and Hoover calculate party vote shares in a nonsensical manner. While this does not have a large effect on their estimates, it often does matter to their discussion of results.
Escobari and Hoover calculate party vote shares in a nonsensical manner. While this does not have a large effect on their estimates, it often does matter to their discussion of results.
If they find that the late-reporting polling stations showed elevated support for Morales, they are hard-pressed to say that the late reporting caused the elevated support as opposed to any other cause or causes for delay — benign or malicious — inducing bias in the selection of polling stations included in the TSE announcement.
If they find that the late-reporting polling stations showed elevated support for Morales, they are hard-pressed to say that the late reporting caused the elevated support as opposed to any other cause or causes for delay — benign or malicious — inducing bias in the selection of polling stations included in the TSE announcement.

Keep up with our latest news

Suscríbase a las últimas noticias

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts addressing a report by Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover covering the 2019 presidential election in Bolivia. Their conclusions do not hold up to scrutiny, as we observe in our report Nickels Before Dimes. Here, we expand upon various claims and conclusions that Escobari and Hoover make in their paper. Links to past posts: part one, part two, part three, part five, part six and part seven.

In the previous post, we observed two biases affecting the preliminary count in Bolivia’s 2019 elections: a bias toward counting small (disproportionately rural) polling stations early, and a general bias against counting rural polling stations early. On balance, these biases meant late-counted polling stations were disproportionately rural and not representative of the stations that had been counted earlier.

After the polls closed on October 21, 2019 and jurors at each station tallied the votes, they submitted the results via cell phone app for inclusion in a preliminary count of the election results: the Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares (TREP). The TREP had no legal standing, and for good reason: it was designed only to give an early sense of the results while the careful and deliberate official count — the cómputo — took several days to complete.

The TREP relied on transcription of electronically submitted images of the actas (tally sheets), many of which were not correctly filled out by the citizens selected at random to manage the operation of their polling station. Indeed, as we noted in the previous post, training was in many cases insufficient.

Sometimes the transcription produced at the polling station conflicted with the transcription produced by workers at the Servicio de Registro Cívico (the Civil Service Registry, SERECI). If the transcript conflicted, the workers could flag the acta for further scrutiny. Many actas contained notes made at the polling stations — observaciones. Observaciones often contained corrections to individual party vote totals listed on the acta. Often these acknowledged utterly benign clerical mistakes, such as starting to record one party’s vote total in the space designated for another. These had potential to cause transcription conflicts as the decision whether to take into account observaciones was not uniformly applied. Observaciones and transcription conflicts delayed the verification of many actas. 

As the TREP had zero legal standing, it was neither important to resolve all conflicts and questions resulting from the electronic submissions nor was it important to complete the count by including all polling stations. We find no record of a preliminary count in Bolivia ever concluding with 100 percent of the actas.

The importance of the TREP in the electoral process was, nevertheless, greatly inflated in 2019. Lest there be any confusion on this point, we note there has been no preliminary count at all in Bolivia since. (The replacement for the TREP was scrapped just days prior to the 2020 election.) The hard work of formally resolving conflicts and questions has always fallen to the electoral authorities of every department performing the official cómputo.

So what happened with the TREP that it became the focal point for allegations of fraud?

At 19:50 on election day, the TSE held a press conference to report that with 83.9 percent of polling stations included in the preliminary count, Morales led runner-up Carlos Mesa by 7.87 percent of the valid votes. If this result held in the completed official count, with Morales lacking either a majority of the valid votes or 40 percent with a 10 percentage point lead, then a second-round vote would be required. The public website showed the current results and made available records of the progression of the count: an Excel document had been produced every three minutes until 19:40:57, containing the list of verified actas and the corresponding unofficial polling-station level results. Further updates to the website were paused so the TSE could present a stable snapshot of the incomplete results. Importantly, the preliminary count progressed without interruption.

Combined with the electoral registry, the 19:40:57 snapshot offered a basis for which projections for the full count could be made. Without doubt, the partial results were not representative of the entire electorate. Nickels before dimes.

Fortunately, most of the outstanding voters were in precincts with at least partial results announced. Assuming the polling stations included were representative of their precincts, we can forecast the vote in about five-sixths of the remaining polling stations.

A crude projection based on the above observations yields a projected margin of about 10.4 percentage points. A more careful analysis attempting to account for the greater uncertainty from polling stations with no results suggests that Morales’s lead would grow to 10.2–10.5 percentage points. In Figure 1, we see forecasts of Morales’s vote margin based entirely on 2019 data available at the time of the TSE announcement. We have assumed that the order in which the polling stations were verified in the count is unchanged. That is, if we knew in advance the order of the count, the results announced by the TSE alone would suggest the trend we see in Figure 1.

Figure 1
All Forecasts Based on Partial Count Show Morales Winning in the First Round

Sources: OEP, TSE, and author’s calculations.

Another independent analyst forecast in real time an eventual 11-point lead. In any case, a review of the past snapshots revealed that Morales had come behind from an initial deficit to take a lead that had been growing almost without interruption for most of the preliminary count. Given the even more unrepresentative precincts that remained, there existed every reason to doubt that a second round would be required.

Although the TSE president warned that many rural, presumably Morales-heavy precincts still remained, the unrepresentative nature of the announced results was largely missed or ignored. An hour later, with the official count only just begun, Mesa claimed prematurely that he had moved on to a second round. The newspapers accepted the announcement with no skepticism.

Greatly complicating matters, at 19:30 — just 20 minutes before the original announcement — Ethical Hacking Consultants (EHC) detected a spike in activity from an internal IP address that was not on their audit list. Seemingly unaware of the cause, EHC sent a “maximum alert” to the TSE a few minutes before 20:00.

According to EHC, the resulting meeting was very tense, with TSE members making accusations of fraud and threatening to call the attorney general. At approximately 20:07, the TSE interrupted the process of verifying actas in the TREP.

The decision to stop the TREP was debatable. Certainly, the European Union Electoral Mission (EEM) had already argued the importance of a more complete preliminary count. The EEM was certainly justified in this regard, as the observed bias was significant enough to mislead. On the other hand, the cómputo was underway, so having multiple counts updating in real time could add to the confusion. As EHC put the security of the TREP in question, it was not obvious that the unofficial count was worth continuing. Again, the TREP of 2019 would be Bolivia’s last preliminary count, so even a partial count would be an improvement over future elections — but for the biased sample reported.

In any case, the opposition seized on the TREP interruption, claiming that the TSE had pulled the plug in order to buy time to manipulate the results. The EOM leaned on the TSE to restart the process. Approaching 1:00 a.m., Marco Antonio Pumari, president of the Comité Cívico Potosinista (Postosí Civic Committee, or Comcipo, an opposition organization) released a series of videos claiming to show fraudulent election materials. Though Pumari retracted those claims just a few hours later after meeting with an observer for the OAS, the videos continue to circulate on social media. Reminiscent of Florida in 2000, angry crowds shut down the official count in Potosí, setting fire to the department office.

The TSE relented the next day, restarting the count. When the public website updated at 18:29 with 94.9 percent of actas verified, the newly added polling stations were predictably favorable to Morales, from areas that had supported the failed 2016 referendum by more than 12 percentage points.[1] Morales now led Mesa in the TREP by 10.15 percentage points.

The OAS — in its role as election observer — publicly challenged the election results, irresponsibly legitimizing the fears of the opposition. In a press release, issued at 21:30 the day after the election, and before all the votes had even been counted, the EOM wrote:

The OAS Mission expresses its deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results revealed after the closing of the polls. 

[… Today] the TSE presented data with an inexplicable change in trend that drastically modifies the fate of the election and generates a loss of confidence in the electoral process. 

At an appropriate time, the Mission will issue a report with recommendations ahead of a second round.

[emphasis added]

The EOM expressed confidence that a count of legitimate ballots would result in an outcome other than the apparent first-round victory suggested by the preliminary, and wholly unofficial, results. The EOM was so confident in this declaration that, before the official results had been tabulated, it publicly stated that there would be a second round. No analysis was offered. To date, the EOM has yet to provide the reasoning behind their declarations that day. Instead, its press release solidified the loss of confidence in the process. By 21:15, opposition protesters had set fire to the TED offices in Sucre.

The EOM statement solidified a narrative of fraud — that the preliminary count had been reliable up to the interruption of the TREP, but the results that came after were inexplicable. Implicitly, only fraud could explain how these late-counted polling stations put Morales over the top for a first-round victory. The fact that the first-round victory has proven predictable puts the lie to the narrative, but the focus on the interruption of the TREP remains, even today.

Today, the OAS insists that its claim of an inexplicable change in trend is irrelevant — that its audit of the election turned up irregularities and security holes sufficient to doubt the official results. However, irregularities happen in every election of meaningful size. Many of the same allegedly fatal irregularities observed in 2019 happened in 2016, 2017, and 2020. The audit team offered zero examples of any official numbers resulting from efforts to manipulate the results. Of course, election security is vital to democracy, but over and over again the findings of the audit report rely on the alleged inexplicability of the post-interruption results to cast suspicion on otherwise ordinary clerical errors or lapses.

It is that same interruption that Escobari and Hoover choose to exploit in their papers, writing:

A shutdown of the official preliminary vote counting system Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares (TREP) gave us a rare opportunity that created a natural experiment to formally test for electoral fraud. We take advantage of the shutdown to separate polling stations between a control group that is less likely to be associated with fraud, and a treatment group where fraud is more likely to have occurred.

Escobari and Hoover do this by separating polling stations that were included in the TSE announcement from those excluded. However, this largely begs the question of fraud in the election. In a classical natural experiment, we know which observations are treated. For example, in a cross-border minimum wage study, we know which firms are subject to the imposition (or increase of) the minimum wage and when. Or, to take another, the Vietnam War draft lottery randomly sorted young men into those who served and those who did not, but in studying the effect of service on their lifetime earnings we start knowing already who did or did not serve. Here, not knowing which stations are treated makes it very hard to discern the effects of treatment. Escobari and Hoover merely proceed as if the late-reported stations have been definitively contaminated by fraud.

How do Escobari and Hoover know that the excluded polling stations are more likely to be associated with fraud? The groups are not otherwise similar. Explicitly, the groups are divided by whether SERECI workers had at the specified time completed work in reviewing the transcription/image pair sent from the polling station. In turn, this depended on how quickly jurors successfully transmitted complete results and images of the acta,[2] and whether there was any conflict between the transcription and image that required resolution. Voter eligibility, cellular access, and juror training and skill (including Spanish literacy and prompt access to electoral notaries) all affected the transmission time and therefore whether a polling station was included in the announcement. Plausibly, areas of low connectivity may be able to transmit the few numbers comprising the transcript but might struggle to submit the much larger image, increasing the time between transmission and verification. Conflicts that delay verification are more likely if, say, juror training and/or skill is low (thereby delaying transmission), but also may be a sign of overly hasty work (premature transmission leading to delay in the approval of the transcription). Nickels before dimes.

This all complicates Escovari and Hoover’s interpretation of their work as a “natural experiment.” Imagine a soccer match between Sweden and Japan, with all the players lined up on the sideline before the game for a pre-match ceremony. We begin announcing the roster, reading off the names and heights of each player starting on Japan’s side and moving on to those of Sweden. Halfway through Sweden’s roster, with the average height announced so far being 180.4 cm, a vuvuzela randomly blares, interrupting the announcement. The roster list then proceeds, and the height of the remaining players averages 185.2 cm. Did the vuvuzela cause the late-announced players to grow nearly 5 cm? The question would be absurd. It’s obvious that the nonrandom announcement of Japanese players before Swedish imposes a bias in the selection of players into groups before and after the vuvuzela. Nickels before dimes.

Similarly, Escobari and Hoover impose important selection biases when they draw the line at the TSE announcement. The “shutdown” does not offer a true opportunity for a natural experiment because the “treatment” group is neither plausibly similar to the “control” nor known to be treated in any ordinary sense. In the next post, we will begin to explore how differences between Escobari and Hoover’s groups (apart from possible fraud) complicate interpretation of their results.

Coda:

Escobari and Hoover cite Roe and Just (2009), saying “natural experiments typically have greater external validity than field experiments.” Even if we accept the 2019 election to offer a natural experiment and we agree with Roe and Just, this is a confusing aside. External validity means the experiment’s conclusions apply outside its confines. In this case, the goal is to estimate fraud in 2019. External validity seems irrelevant and Escobari and Hoover do not expand on its possible importance elsewhere in the paper.

[1] The referendum sought to lift presidential term limits and is therefore recognized as an imperfect proxy for support for the incumbent president, Morales. More precisely, the results of the referendum may be a proxy for all kinds of geographic and demographic factors which then help to explain support for Morales.

[2] The image requirement is irritatingly important. Once jurors submitted a transcript, the polling station was flagged as “transmitted.” Yet until an image of the acta is received, SERECI workers cannot proceed. That is, although verifications generally proceeded in the order in which transcripts were transmitted, any transcripts lacking an image to match would not be entered into the verification pool.

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts addressing a report by Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover covering the 2019 presidential election in Bolivia. Their conclusions do not hold up to scrutiny, as we observe in our report Nickels Before Dimes. Here, we expand upon various claims and conclusions that Escobari and Hoover make in their paper. Links to past posts: part one, part two, part three, part five, part six and part seven.

In the previous post, we observed two biases affecting the preliminary count in Bolivia’s 2019 elections: a bias toward counting small (disproportionately rural) polling stations early, and a general bias against counting rural polling stations early. On balance, these biases meant late-counted polling stations were disproportionately rural and not representative of the stations that had been counted earlier.

After the polls closed on October 21, 2019 and jurors at each station tallied the votes, they submitted the results via cell phone app for inclusion in a preliminary count of the election results: the Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares (TREP). The TREP had no legal standing, and for good reason: it was designed only to give an early sense of the results while the careful and deliberate official count — the cómputo — took several days to complete.

The TREP relied on transcription of electronically submitted images of the actas (tally sheets), many of which were not correctly filled out by the citizens selected at random to manage the operation of their polling station. Indeed, as we noted in the previous post, training was in many cases insufficient.

Sometimes the transcription produced at the polling station conflicted with the transcription produced by workers at the Servicio de Registro Cívico (the Civil Service Registry, SERECI). If the transcript conflicted, the workers could flag the acta for further scrutiny. Many actas contained notes made at the polling stations — observaciones. Observaciones often contained corrections to individual party vote totals listed on the acta. Often these acknowledged utterly benign clerical mistakes, such as starting to record one party’s vote total in the space designated for another. These had potential to cause transcription conflicts as the decision whether to take into account observaciones was not uniformly applied. Observaciones and transcription conflicts delayed the verification of many actas. 

As the TREP had zero legal standing, it was neither important to resolve all conflicts and questions resulting from the electronic submissions nor was it important to complete the count by including all polling stations. We find no record of a preliminary count in Bolivia ever concluding with 100 percent of the actas.

The importance of the TREP in the electoral process was, nevertheless, greatly inflated in 2019. Lest there be any confusion on this point, we note there has been no preliminary count at all in Bolivia since. (The replacement for the TREP was scrapped just days prior to the 2020 election.) The hard work of formally resolving conflicts and questions has always fallen to the electoral authorities of every department performing the official cómputo.

So what happened with the TREP that it became the focal point for allegations of fraud?

At 19:50 on election day, the TSE held a press conference to report that with 83.9 percent of polling stations included in the preliminary count, Morales led runner-up Carlos Mesa by 7.87 percent of the valid votes. If this result held in the completed official count, with Morales lacking either a majority of the valid votes or 40 percent with a 10 percentage point lead, then a second-round vote would be required. The public website showed the current results and made available records of the progression of the count: an Excel document had been produced every three minutes until 19:40:57, containing the list of verified actas and the corresponding unofficial polling-station level results. Further updates to the website were paused so the TSE could present a stable snapshot of the incomplete results. Importantly, the preliminary count progressed without interruption.

Combined with the electoral registry, the 19:40:57 snapshot offered a basis for which projections for the full count could be made. Without doubt, the partial results were not representative of the entire electorate. Nickels before dimes.

Fortunately, most of the outstanding voters were in precincts with at least partial results announced. Assuming the polling stations included were representative of their precincts, we can forecast the vote in about five-sixths of the remaining polling stations.

A crude projection based on the above observations yields a projected margin of about 10.4 percentage points. A more careful analysis attempting to account for the greater uncertainty from polling stations with no results suggests that Morales’s lead would grow to 10.2–10.5 percentage points. In Figure 1, we see forecasts of Morales’s vote margin based entirely on 2019 data available at the time of the TSE announcement. We have assumed that the order in which the polling stations were verified in the count is unchanged. That is, if we knew in advance the order of the count, the results announced by the TSE alone would suggest the trend we see in Figure 1.

Figure 1
All Forecasts Based on Partial Count Show Morales Winning in the First Round

Sources: OEP, TSE, and author’s calculations.

Another independent analyst forecast in real time an eventual 11-point lead. In any case, a review of the past snapshots revealed that Morales had come behind from an initial deficit to take a lead that had been growing almost without interruption for most of the preliminary count. Given the even more unrepresentative precincts that remained, there existed every reason to doubt that a second round would be required.

Although the TSE president warned that many rural, presumably Morales-heavy precincts still remained, the unrepresentative nature of the announced results was largely missed or ignored. An hour later, with the official count only just begun, Mesa claimed prematurely that he had moved on to a second round. The newspapers accepted the announcement with no skepticism.

Greatly complicating matters, at 19:30 — just 20 minutes before the original announcement — Ethical Hacking Consultants (EHC) detected a spike in activity from an internal IP address that was not on their audit list. Seemingly unaware of the cause, EHC sent a “maximum alert” to the TSE a few minutes before 20:00.

According to EHC, the resulting meeting was very tense, with TSE members making accusations of fraud and threatening to call the attorney general. At approximately 20:07, the TSE interrupted the process of verifying actas in the TREP.

The decision to stop the TREP was debatable. Certainly, the European Union Electoral Mission (EEM) had already argued the importance of a more complete preliminary count. The EEM was certainly justified in this regard, as the observed bias was significant enough to mislead. On the other hand, the cómputo was underway, so having multiple counts updating in real time could add to the confusion. As EHC put the security of the TREP in question, it was not obvious that the unofficial count was worth continuing. Again, the TREP of 2019 would be Bolivia’s last preliminary count, so even a partial count would be an improvement over future elections — but for the biased sample reported.

In any case, the opposition seized on the TREP interruption, claiming that the TSE had pulled the plug in order to buy time to manipulate the results. The EOM leaned on the TSE to restart the process. Approaching 1:00 a.m., Marco Antonio Pumari, president of the Comité Cívico Potosinista (Postosí Civic Committee, or Comcipo, an opposition organization) released a series of videos claiming to show fraudulent election materials. Though Pumari retracted those claims just a few hours later after meeting with an observer for the OAS, the videos continue to circulate on social media. Reminiscent of Florida in 2000, angry crowds shut down the official count in Potosí, setting fire to the department office.

The TSE relented the next day, restarting the count. When the public website updated at 18:29 with 94.9 percent of actas verified, the newly added polling stations were predictably favorable to Morales, from areas that had supported the failed 2016 referendum by more than 12 percentage points.[1] Morales now led Mesa in the TREP by 10.15 percentage points.

The OAS — in its role as election observer — publicly challenged the election results, irresponsibly legitimizing the fears of the opposition. In a press release, issued at 21:30 the day after the election, and before all the votes had even been counted, the EOM wrote:

The OAS Mission expresses its deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results revealed after the closing of the polls. 

[… Today] the TSE presented data with an inexplicable change in trend that drastically modifies the fate of the election and generates a loss of confidence in the electoral process. 

At an appropriate time, the Mission will issue a report with recommendations ahead of a second round.

[emphasis added]

The EOM expressed confidence that a count of legitimate ballots would result in an outcome other than the apparent first-round victory suggested by the preliminary, and wholly unofficial, results. The EOM was so confident in this declaration that, before the official results had been tabulated, it publicly stated that there would be a second round. No analysis was offered. To date, the EOM has yet to provide the reasoning behind their declarations that day. Instead, its press release solidified the loss of confidence in the process. By 21:15, opposition protesters had set fire to the TED offices in Sucre.

The EOM statement solidified a narrative of fraud — that the preliminary count had been reliable up to the interruption of the TREP, but the results that came after were inexplicable. Implicitly, only fraud could explain how these late-counted polling stations put Morales over the top for a first-round victory. The fact that the first-round victory has proven predictable puts the lie to the narrative, but the focus on the interruption of the TREP remains, even today.

Today, the OAS insists that its claim of an inexplicable change in trend is irrelevant — that its audit of the election turned up irregularities and security holes sufficient to doubt the official results. However, irregularities happen in every election of meaningful size. Many of the same allegedly fatal irregularities observed in 2019 happened in 2016, 2017, and 2020. The audit team offered zero examples of any official numbers resulting from efforts to manipulate the results. Of course, election security is vital to democracy, but over and over again the findings of the audit report rely on the alleged inexplicability of the post-interruption results to cast suspicion on otherwise ordinary clerical errors or lapses.

It is that same interruption that Escobari and Hoover choose to exploit in their papers, writing:

A shutdown of the official preliminary vote counting system Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares (TREP) gave us a rare opportunity that created a natural experiment to formally test for electoral fraud. We take advantage of the shutdown to separate polling stations between a control group that is less likely to be associated with fraud, and a treatment group where fraud is more likely to have occurred.

Escobari and Hoover do this by separating polling stations that were included in the TSE announcement from those excluded. However, this largely begs the question of fraud in the election. In a classical natural experiment, we know which observations are treated. For example, in a cross-border minimum wage study, we know which firms are subject to the imposition (or increase of) the minimum wage and when. Or, to take another, the Vietnam War draft lottery randomly sorted young men into those who served and those who did not, but in studying the effect of service on their lifetime earnings we start knowing already who did or did not serve. Here, not knowing which stations are treated makes it very hard to discern the effects of treatment. Escobari and Hoover merely proceed as if the late-reported stations have been definitively contaminated by fraud.

How do Escobari and Hoover know that the excluded polling stations are more likely to be associated with fraud? The groups are not otherwise similar. Explicitly, the groups are divided by whether SERECI workers had at the specified time completed work in reviewing the transcription/image pair sent from the polling station. In turn, this depended on how quickly jurors successfully transmitted complete results and images of the acta,[2] and whether there was any conflict between the transcription and image that required resolution. Voter eligibility, cellular access, and juror training and skill (including Spanish literacy and prompt access to electoral notaries) all affected the transmission time and therefore whether a polling station was included in the announcement. Plausibly, areas of low connectivity may be able to transmit the few numbers comprising the transcript but might struggle to submit the much larger image, increasing the time between transmission and verification. Conflicts that delay verification are more likely if, say, juror training and/or skill is low (thereby delaying transmission), but also may be a sign of overly hasty work (premature transmission leading to delay in the approval of the transcription). Nickels before dimes.

This all complicates Escovari and Hoover’s interpretation of their work as a “natural experiment.” Imagine a soccer match between Sweden and Japan, with all the players lined up on the sideline before the game for a pre-match ceremony. We begin announcing the roster, reading off the names and heights of each player starting on Japan’s side and moving on to those of Sweden. Halfway through Sweden’s roster, with the average height announced so far being 180.4 cm, a vuvuzela randomly blares, interrupting the announcement. The roster list then proceeds, and the height of the remaining players averages 185.2 cm. Did the vuvuzela cause the late-announced players to grow nearly 5 cm? The question would be absurd. It’s obvious that the nonrandom announcement of Japanese players before Swedish imposes a bias in the selection of players into groups before and after the vuvuzela. Nickels before dimes.

Similarly, Escobari and Hoover impose important selection biases when they draw the line at the TSE announcement. The “shutdown” does not offer a true opportunity for a natural experiment because the “treatment” group is neither plausibly similar to the “control” nor known to be treated in any ordinary sense. In the next post, we will begin to explore how differences between Escobari and Hoover’s groups (apart from possible fraud) complicate interpretation of their results.

Coda:

Escobari and Hoover cite Roe and Just (2009), saying “natural experiments typically have greater external validity than field experiments.” Even if we accept the 2019 election to offer a natural experiment and we agree with Roe and Just, this is a confusing aside. External validity means the experiment’s conclusions apply outside its confines. In this case, the goal is to estimate fraud in 2019. External validity seems irrelevant and Escobari and Hoover do not expand on its possible importance elsewhere in the paper.

[1] The referendum sought to lift presidential term limits and is therefore recognized as an imperfect proxy for support for the incumbent president, Morales. More precisely, the results of the referendum may be a proxy for all kinds of geographic and demographic factors which then help to explain support for Morales.

[2] The image requirement is irritatingly important. Once jurors submitted a transcript, the polling station was flagged as “transmitted.” Yet until an image of the acta is received, SERECI workers cannot proceed. That is, although verifications generally proceeded in the order in which transcripts were transmitted, any transcripts lacking an image to match would not be entered into the verification pool.

This is the third in a series of blog posts addressing a report by Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover covering the 2019 presidential election in Bolivia. Their conclusions do not hold up to scrutiny, as we observe in our report Nickels Before Dimes. Here, we expand upon various claims and conclusions that Escobari and Hoover make in their paper. Links to past posts: part one, part two, part four, part five, part six and part seven.

In our previous entry, we observed that a small bias in the order in which ballots are counted may mislead in our understanding of an election. Specifically, the tendency for one candidate’s votes to be considered in advance of another’s means that a partial count will not be representative of the entire electorate. Under very simple assumptions, what appears to be a stable overall trend may swing very sharply. Projections of the final results must not be naive and fail to account for considering nickels before dimes, lest the analyst is surprised by the final result.

In our example of biased counts, any vote for candidate B was14 percent more likely to be counted next when compared to any vote for candidate A. As a result, votes for A were about 16 percent more likely to be counted among the last one-sixth than they were among the first one-sixth. This was enough to throw off naive estimates of the election result based on partial reporting.

The preliminary count in Bolivia’s 2019 presidential election suffered from a similar kind of bias, and in the official count the bias was even worse. In the preliminary count, rural voters (which tended to strongly favor Morales) were 56 percent more likely to be counted in the last sixth than in the first. But in the official count, rural voters were nearly four times more likely to be counted in the last sixth than in the first. Nickels before dimes.

Of course, not all rural voters voted for Morales, nor did urban voters against. However, the early biases against rural voters are factors that must be completely accounted for in partial counts of the results. There were benign reasons for these biases to exist.

In the preliminary count, polling stations were included in approximately the same order that the results were transmitted to a central location via a phone app. This meant that rural areas lacking cellular coverage were delayed as the functionaries responsible for submitting the results waited to be ferried to locations with cellular coverage. Furthermore, poll workers were selected at random, and not all poll workers were well-trained. Those selected from poor and Indigenous communities have elevated levels of Spanish illiteracy and are less likely to have the kind of clerical experience that would facilitate the work of managing the polling station. According to the Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) of the Organization for American States: 

69% of the tables observed had all of their official members, while 15% had to turn to voters who were in line. This last percentage is important given that the citizens who went on to serve at the tables had little or no knowledge about their role.

In addition, the EOM observed that the level of poll workers’ training was in most cases insufficient, forcing them to constantly turn to the election notary in order to carry out their duties. This became more acute at the time the polls were closing, during the vote tallying, and when the tally sheets were being filled out.

The EOM did not indicate if such problems were more prevalent in neighborhoods of a particular socioeconomic status, but even slight delays in reporting could easily bias the order of the count. At peak transmission, a delay of only five minutes would allow another 1,700 polling stations — almost 5 percent of the total — to report first.

The preliminary count results relied on electronic submissions. However, a polling station could not be included in the official count until results were hand-delivered to offices in the department capitals. This created a very strong, natural bias for precincts geographically close to the offices to be counted early. It requires little imagination to see that precincts only several city blocks away would deliver results very early, while precincts in remote and nearly inaccessible towns would deliver results very late. Voters in capital cities were 11 times more likely to have their polling stations included in the first sixth of the count than in the last sixth. And the capital cities, in particular, strongly opposed Morales.

There is another bias worth mentioning. Escobari and Hoover, in the right panel of their Figure 3, show that rural polling stations were disproportionately likely to transmit results both very early and very late.

Figure 1
Escobari and Hoover Show Many Rural Stations Reported Very Early and Very Late

Source: Escobari and Hoover (2020) Figure 3.

They speculate that the elevated rural share among the earliest reporters came from polling stations with relatively few votes to count. They nevertheless dismiss the “rural vote effect” as an artifact of decades past.

The “rural vote effect” (rural stations reporting later) is absolutely true, if masked in part by the small-station effect that disproportionately applied to rural precincts. Only 11 percent of eligible voters were assigned to polling stations with fewer than 215 total voters. Having fewer eligible voters, and therefore generally fewer votes to count (an average of 120 voters tuning out, compared to 201 for the larger stations) the small polling stations tended to submit their transcription of the results first. Compared to urban voters, rural voters were six times more likely to be assigned to one of these small polling stations, so on balance the earliest results were disproportionately rural. However, regardless of whether the station was small or large, the rural stations tended to transmit results later than urban stations.

The blue line of Figure 2 largely replicates Escobari and Hoover. Our numbers are a little higher because we restrict our analysis to polling stations located in Bolivia (Bolivians around the world may vote in Bolivian elections), but the story is the same: the earliest and latest reporters were disproportionately rural. Yet, separating stations into groups of small and large, we see rural stations tended to report late, regardless of size.

Figure 2

Among Both Small and Large Stations, Rural Stations Tended to Report Later

Source: author’s calculations.

This is an incomplete accounting for the biases involved in partial counts of the 2019 election. For now, it suffices to recognize that votes were not counted at random and that the problem of counting nickels before dimes is real and must be accounted for when the count is incomplete.

In the next post, we offer some background on the preliminary count and note how the problem of nickels before dimes created a misleading picture of the election — with fatal consequences.

This is the third in a series of blog posts addressing a report by Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover covering the 2019 presidential election in Bolivia. Their conclusions do not hold up to scrutiny, as we observe in our report Nickels Before Dimes. Here, we expand upon various claims and conclusions that Escobari and Hoover make in their paper. Links to past posts: part one, part two, part four, part five, part six and part seven.

In our previous entry, we observed that a small bias in the order in which ballots are counted may mislead in our understanding of an election. Specifically, the tendency for one candidate’s votes to be considered in advance of another’s means that a partial count will not be representative of the entire electorate. Under very simple assumptions, what appears to be a stable overall trend may swing very sharply. Projections of the final results must not be naive and fail to account for considering nickels before dimes, lest the analyst is surprised by the final result.

In our example of biased counts, any vote for candidate B was14 percent more likely to be counted next when compared to any vote for candidate A. As a result, votes for A were about 16 percent more likely to be counted among the last one-sixth than they were among the first one-sixth. This was enough to throw off naive estimates of the election result based on partial reporting.

The preliminary count in Bolivia’s 2019 presidential election suffered from a similar kind of bias, and in the official count the bias was even worse. In the preliminary count, rural voters (which tended to strongly favor Morales) were 56 percent more likely to be counted in the last sixth than in the first. But in the official count, rural voters were nearly four times more likely to be counted in the last sixth than in the first. Nickels before dimes.

Of course, not all rural voters voted for Morales, nor did urban voters against. However, the early biases against rural voters are factors that must be completely accounted for in partial counts of the results. There were benign reasons for these biases to exist.

In the preliminary count, polling stations were included in approximately the same order that the results were transmitted to a central location via a phone app. This meant that rural areas lacking cellular coverage were delayed as the functionaries responsible for submitting the results waited to be ferried to locations with cellular coverage. Furthermore, poll workers were selected at random, and not all poll workers were well-trained. Those selected from poor and Indigenous communities have elevated levels of Spanish illiteracy and are less likely to have the kind of clerical experience that would facilitate the work of managing the polling station. According to the Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) of the Organization for American States: 

69% of the tables observed had all of their official members, while 15% had to turn to voters who were in line. This last percentage is important given that the citizens who went on to serve at the tables had little or no knowledge about their role.

In addition, the EOM observed that the level of poll workers’ training was in most cases insufficient, forcing them to constantly turn to the election notary in order to carry out their duties. This became more acute at the time the polls were closing, during the vote tallying, and when the tally sheets were being filled out.

The EOM did not indicate if such problems were more prevalent in neighborhoods of a particular socioeconomic status, but even slight delays in reporting could easily bias the order of the count. At peak transmission, a delay of only five minutes would allow another 1,700 polling stations — almost 5 percent of the total — to report first.

The preliminary count results relied on electronic submissions. However, a polling station could not be included in the official count until results were hand-delivered to offices in the department capitals. This created a very strong, natural bias for precincts geographically close to the offices to be counted early. It requires little imagination to see that precincts only several city blocks away would deliver results very early, while precincts in remote and nearly inaccessible towns would deliver results very late. Voters in capital cities were 11 times more likely to have their polling stations included in the first sixth of the count than in the last sixth. And the capital cities, in particular, strongly opposed Morales.

There is another bias worth mentioning. Escobari and Hoover, in the right panel of their Figure 3, show that rural polling stations were disproportionately likely to transmit results both very early and very late.

Figure 1
Escobari and Hoover Show Many Rural Stations Reported Very Early and Very Late

Source: Escobari and Hoover (2020) Figure 3.

They speculate that the elevated rural share among the earliest reporters came from polling stations with relatively few votes to count. They nevertheless dismiss the “rural vote effect” as an artifact of decades past.

The “rural vote effect” (rural stations reporting later) is absolutely true, if masked in part by the small-station effect that disproportionately applied to rural precincts. Only 11 percent of eligible voters were assigned to polling stations with fewer than 215 total voters. Having fewer eligible voters, and therefore generally fewer votes to count (an average of 120 voters tuning out, compared to 201 for the larger stations) the small polling stations tended to submit their transcription of the results first. Compared to urban voters, rural voters were six times more likely to be assigned to one of these small polling stations, so on balance the earliest results were disproportionately rural. However, regardless of whether the station was small or large, the rural stations tended to transmit results later than urban stations.

The blue line of Figure 2 largely replicates Escobari and Hoover. Our numbers are a little higher because we restrict our analysis to polling stations located in Bolivia (Bolivians around the world may vote in Bolivian elections), but the story is the same: the earliest and latest reporters were disproportionately rural. Yet, separating stations into groups of small and large, we see rural stations tended to report late, regardless of size.

Figure 2

Among Both Small and Large Stations, Rural Stations Tended to Report Later

Source: author’s calculations.

This is an incomplete accounting for the biases involved in partial counts of the 2019 election. For now, it suffices to recognize that votes were not counted at random and that the problem of counting nickels before dimes is real and must be accounted for when the count is incomplete.

In the next post, we offer some background on the preliminary count and note how the problem of nickels before dimes created a misleading picture of the election — with fatal consequences.

This is the second in a series of blog posts addressing a report by Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover covering the 2019 presidential election in Bolivia. Their conclusions do not hold up to scrutiny, as we observe in our report Nickels Before Dimes. Here, we expand upon various claims and conclusions that Escobari and Hoover make in their paper. Links to past posts: part one, part three, part four, part five, part six and part seven.

Alex reminds Blake, “Don’t forget it’s my night to pick.” 

“We’re a dollar thirty short,” says Blake. “We can’t afford your fancy pizza. Let’s just go get those awesome sandwiches from the corner store.” 

“A dollar thirty?” responds Alex, “You really don’t want pizza, do you? Go check the swear jar. There’s enough there.”

“Alex, there’s only twenty coins in here. That’s not enough.” Blake starts pulling out coins, one by one. Ten coins in, they hold eight nickels and two dimes. “Sorry, Alex, I’m halfway done counting, but we only have 60 cents. I’m going downstairs for sandwiches.”

By the time Blake returns with their sandwiches, Alex is livid. “I counted the rest of the jar. A dollar thirty more for pizza, and we have a dollar fifty. I told you there was enough money. I can’t believe you’d lie rather than get pizza.” 

“I can’t believe you’d accuse me of lying, Alex. The first half of the jar came to 60 cents. That’s only a dollar twenty total. I don’t know where you got the extra thirty cents, but it wasn’t from the jar.”

The phone rings, and Alex picks up. It’s their friend Charlie calling about meeting up this coming weekend. Alex, exasperated, tells the story of what happened. Charlie frowns. “Y’all will be much happier if you sort out some issues with your dinner decisions. But let’s think this through. Just because the first ten coins were eight nickels and two dimes doesn’t mean the other ten counts were eight nickels and two dimes. Even if Blake had drawn at random from a jar of ten nickels and ten dimes, there is a one in 87 chance that eight of the first ten would be nickels.”

“See!” Blake retorts, “That’s not very likely, so Alex added money to the jar.”

Charlie takes a deep breath. “One in 87 is not very likely, but not at all impossible. It could just have been bad luck. Yet there is a more innocuous explanation. Nickels are bigger than dimes. If Blake simply drew the first coin they touched, it would more likely be a nickel. Depending on how Blake happened to draw the coins the odds could have been one in eight, or maybe one in three. They may not have realized the bias in selecting nickels before dimes.

“It doesn’t matter if Blake drew nickels before dimes deliberately or unwittingly. Deciding halfway through the count that there wasn’t enough money and buying sandwiches was premature.”

What is the point of this parable in terms of alleged election fraud? When counting votes in an election, the only thing that matters is the final count. So long as we count all the votes, the order in which we count is unimportant. We could count all the votes for candidate A first, then those for candidate B. Ordering the count in this manner, however, the results of any partial count are misleading.

If we are to weigh the risk of being misled by a bias in counting, we must consider what a biased count might look like. In Figure 1, we see how candidate A’s lead might increase as a count progresses. In this example, there is no bias; the deviations from a straight line is pure chance. At the end of the count candidate A has won by 950 votes out of 9,000 total.

Figure 1
An Example Count with No Bias

 

Source: author’s calculations.

In Figure 2, we see 100 different counts. Note that the votes are exactly the same in all 100 counts, but the order of ballots in each count is different. Again, there is no bias in the selection of votes, so at the end of all 100 counts candidate A has won by exactly the same 950 votes.

Figure 2
One Hundred Unbiased Counts

Source: author’s calculations.

However, if we introduce a slight bias, the count starts looking very different. In Figure 3, we add a biased count: of the remaining votes, any given vote for B is 14 percent more likely to be counted next when compared to any given vote for A. Because there are more votes for A than B, however, the first vote counted will be for A 52 percent of the time. Candidate A still wins by 950 votes once the count is completed. However, early in the count, the lead grows slowly; later A’s lead grows more quickly.

Figure 3
Biasing the Counts

 

Source: author’s calculations.

This means that a partial biased count will form a poor estimate for the final result. To make this a bit more clear, we re-present these same counts in Figure 4. Unlike Figure 3, however, we now show the growing lead for candidate A as a share of the total votes counted up to that point. 

Figure 4
Leads in Biased Counts as Share of Votes Counted

Source: author’s calculations.

In Figure 4, we see that in the end, candidate A has won by 10.56 percent of all votes (4975–4025). Very early, this vote margin varies by a lot, but as the count progresses, the margin stabilizes. After about 3,000 votes have been examined, 99 percent of unbiased counts show candidate A with a lead of 6.7–14.4 percent (or about 200–430 votes). We might expect at that point that the final lead would be the same 6.7–14.4 percent of 9,000 votes, or 600–1,290.

As an unbiased count progresses, such estimates improve. By the time 7,500 ballots have been examined, the lead is around 9.3–11.8 percent, or 700–880 votes. Any individual count may still mislead somewhat, due to bad luck. There is only about a 1 in 10,000 chance that the lead will be 8.8 percent or less by the 7,500 ballot mark (corresponding to 660 votes or less).

The same cannot be said for the biased count. Again, the margin varies quite a lot early, but at nearly every point a biased, partial, count is almost guaranteed to mislead as to the final vote. By the time 3,000 votes have been examined, only 18 of the 100 biased counts show candidate A with a lead of 6.7 percent. Even after 7,500 votes have been counted, A’s lead is below 8.8 percent in 90 of the 100 biased examples.

Just as tending to select nickels before dimes led to an underestimate of the value of the coins in the jar, a small bias against candidate A in selecting ballots leads the partial counts to significantly underestimate overall support for A.

Likewise, when we have a counting bias in favor of B, we will likely observe a sharp increase in support for A late in the count. In Figure 4, the margins were cumulative over the progress of the count. In Figure 5, we see the margins on only recently counted ballots. That is, in Figure 4, the reported margins at “4,500” consider all ballots in the first half of the count while in Figure 5, the reported margins at “4,500” consider only ballots in the very middle of the count.

We see again that candidate A wins by about 4 percentage points on the earliest-counted votes (52–48), increasing to about 13 percentage points (56.5–43.5) for votes 6,000–7,500. In the last sixth of the count, the margin tends to rise much more sharply — to an average of perhaps 36 percentage points (68–32) by the end.

Figure 5
Support for A in Biased Counts Often Shows Sharp Increase Near the End

Source: author’s calculations.

Again, there is nothing unusual about the votes at the end, except that there has been a counting bias throughout. The bias at the end is not greater than the bias at the beginning; rather the cumulative effect of the bias leaves relatively few B votes at the end of the count. 

Importantly, this counting bias means not only that later-counted votes on average show more support for A than do early-counted votes, but that the trend usually turns quite sharply in favor of A late in the count. This means that even if we recognize that there was a counting bias, we must not naively assume that the trend in the first half or even first five-sixths of the count will persist. If, after 7,500 votes had been counted, we assumed the trend would continue as a straight line, we would wind up severely underestimating the final margin of victory for A. We may easily understate A’s support by a percentage point or more.

As we will see in this series, the preliminary count in Bolivia’s 2019 presidential election suffered from a similar bias: polling stations favoring the opposition — Carlos Mesa in particular — tended to be counted before polling stations favoring the incumbent, Morales. Nickels before dimes. Escobari and Hoover fail to fully account for this bias and this leads them to underestimate Morales’s lead late in the preliminary count. Consequently, they erroneously infer the existence of widespread fraud. In our next post, we will begin to explore the actual counting biases present in that election.

This is the second in a series of blog posts addressing a report by Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover covering the 2019 presidential election in Bolivia. Their conclusions do not hold up to scrutiny, as we observe in our report Nickels Before Dimes. Here, we expand upon various claims and conclusions that Escobari and Hoover make in their paper. Links to past posts: part one, part three, part four, part five, part six and part seven.

Alex reminds Blake, “Don’t forget it’s my night to pick.” 

“We’re a dollar thirty short,” says Blake. “We can’t afford your fancy pizza. Let’s just go get those awesome sandwiches from the corner store.” 

“A dollar thirty?” responds Alex, “You really don’t want pizza, do you? Go check the swear jar. There’s enough there.”

“Alex, there’s only twenty coins in here. That’s not enough.” Blake starts pulling out coins, one by one. Ten coins in, they hold eight nickels and two dimes. “Sorry, Alex, I’m halfway done counting, but we only have 60 cents. I’m going downstairs for sandwiches.”

By the time Blake returns with their sandwiches, Alex is livid. “I counted the rest of the jar. A dollar thirty more for pizza, and we have a dollar fifty. I told you there was enough money. I can’t believe you’d lie rather than get pizza.” 

“I can’t believe you’d accuse me of lying, Alex. The first half of the jar came to 60 cents. That’s only a dollar twenty total. I don’t know where you got the extra thirty cents, but it wasn’t from the jar.”

The phone rings, and Alex picks up. It’s their friend Charlie calling about meeting up this coming weekend. Alex, exasperated, tells the story of what happened. Charlie frowns. “Y’all will be much happier if you sort out some issues with your dinner decisions. But let’s think this through. Just because the first ten coins were eight nickels and two dimes doesn’t mean the other ten counts were eight nickels and two dimes. Even if Blake had drawn at random from a jar of ten nickels and ten dimes, there is a one in 87 chance that eight of the first ten would be nickels.”

“See!” Blake retorts, “That’s not very likely, so Alex added money to the jar.”

Charlie takes a deep breath. “One in 87 is not very likely, but not at all impossible. It could just have been bad luck. Yet there is a more innocuous explanation. Nickels are bigger than dimes. If Blake simply drew the first coin they touched, it would more likely be a nickel. Depending on how Blake happened to draw the coins the odds could have been one in eight, or maybe one in three. They may not have realized the bias in selecting nickels before dimes.

“It doesn’t matter if Blake drew nickels before dimes deliberately or unwittingly. Deciding halfway through the count that there wasn’t enough money and buying sandwiches was premature.”

What is the point of this parable in terms of alleged election fraud? When counting votes in an election, the only thing that matters is the final count. So long as we count all the votes, the order in which we count is unimportant. We could count all the votes for candidate A first, then those for candidate B. Ordering the count in this manner, however, the results of any partial count are misleading.

If we are to weigh the risk of being misled by a bias in counting, we must consider what a biased count might look like. In Figure 1, we see how candidate A’s lead might increase as a count progresses. In this example, there is no bias; the deviations from a straight line is pure chance. At the end of the count candidate A has won by 950 votes out of 9,000 total.

Figure 1
An Example Count with No Bias

 

Source: author’s calculations.

In Figure 2, we see 100 different counts. Note that the votes are exactly the same in all 100 counts, but the order of ballots in each count is different. Again, there is no bias in the selection of votes, so at the end of all 100 counts candidate A has won by exactly the same 950 votes.

Figure 2
One Hundred Unbiased Counts

Source: author’s calculations.

However, if we introduce a slight bias, the count starts looking very different. In Figure 3, we add a biased count: of the remaining votes, any given vote for B is 14 percent more likely to be counted next when compared to any given vote for A. Because there are more votes for A than B, however, the first vote counted will be for A 52 percent of the time. Candidate A still wins by 950 votes once the count is completed. However, early in the count, the lead grows slowly; later A’s lead grows more quickly.

Figure 3
Biasing the Counts

 

Source: author’s calculations.

This means that a partial biased count will form a poor estimate for the final result. To make this a bit more clear, we re-present these same counts in Figure 4. Unlike Figure 3, however, we now show the growing lead for candidate A as a share of the total votes counted up to that point. 

Figure 4
Leads in Biased Counts as Share of Votes Counted

Source: author’s calculations.

In Figure 4, we see that in the end, candidate A has won by 10.56 percent of all votes (4975–4025). Very early, this vote margin varies by a lot, but as the count progresses, the margin stabilizes. After about 3,000 votes have been examined, 99 percent of unbiased counts show candidate A with a lead of 6.7–14.4 percent (or about 200–430 votes). We might expect at that point that the final lead would be the same 6.7–14.4 percent of 9,000 votes, or 600–1,290.

As an unbiased count progresses, such estimates improve. By the time 7,500 ballots have been examined, the lead is around 9.3–11.8 percent, or 700–880 votes. Any individual count may still mislead somewhat, due to bad luck. There is only about a 1 in 10,000 chance that the lead will be 8.8 percent or less by the 7,500 ballot mark (corresponding to 660 votes or less).

The same cannot be said for the biased count. Again, the margin varies quite a lot early, but at nearly every point a biased, partial, count is almost guaranteed to mislead as to the final vote. By the time 3,000 votes have been examined, only 18 of the 100 biased counts show candidate A with a lead of 6.7 percent. Even after 7,500 votes have been counted, A’s lead is below 8.8 percent in 90 of the 100 biased examples.

Just as tending to select nickels before dimes led to an underestimate of the value of the coins in the jar, a small bias against candidate A in selecting ballots leads the partial counts to significantly underestimate overall support for A.

Likewise, when we have a counting bias in favor of B, we will likely observe a sharp increase in support for A late in the count. In Figure 4, the margins were cumulative over the progress of the count. In Figure 5, we see the margins on only recently counted ballots. That is, in Figure 4, the reported margins at “4,500” consider all ballots in the first half of the count while in Figure 5, the reported margins at “4,500” consider only ballots in the very middle of the count.

We see again that candidate A wins by about 4 percentage points on the earliest-counted votes (52–48), increasing to about 13 percentage points (56.5–43.5) for votes 6,000–7,500. In the last sixth of the count, the margin tends to rise much more sharply — to an average of perhaps 36 percentage points (68–32) by the end.

Figure 5
Support for A in Biased Counts Often Shows Sharp Increase Near the End

Source: author’s calculations.

Again, there is nothing unusual about the votes at the end, except that there has been a counting bias throughout. The bias at the end is not greater than the bias at the beginning; rather the cumulative effect of the bias leaves relatively few B votes at the end of the count. 

Importantly, this counting bias means not only that later-counted votes on average show more support for A than do early-counted votes, but that the trend usually turns quite sharply in favor of A late in the count. This means that even if we recognize that there was a counting bias, we must not naively assume that the trend in the first half or even first five-sixths of the count will persist. If, after 7,500 votes had been counted, we assumed the trend would continue as a straight line, we would wind up severely underestimating the final margin of victory for A. We may easily understate A’s support by a percentage point or more.

As we will see in this series, the preliminary count in Bolivia’s 2019 presidential election suffered from a similar bias: polling stations favoring the opposition — Carlos Mesa in particular — tended to be counted before polling stations favoring the incumbent, Morales. Nickels before dimes. Escobari and Hoover fail to fully account for this bias and this leads them to underestimate Morales’s lead late in the preliminary count. Consequently, they erroneously infer the existence of widespread fraud. In our next post, we will begin to explore the actual counting biases present in that election.

This is the first in a series of blog posts addressing a report by Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover covering the 2019 presidential election in Bolivia. Their conclusions do not hold up to scrutiny, as we observe in our report Nickels Before Dimes. Here, we expand upon various claims and conclusions that Escobari and Hoover make in their paper. Links to past posts: part two, part three, part four, part five, part six and part seven.

On October 25, 2019, election officials in Bolivia announced that incumbent Evo Morales had won reelection. In a nine-way first-round balloting run October 20, the final count showed Morales with 47.08 percent of the valid votes and a 10.56 percentage point lead over runner-up Carlos Mesa. 

However, on October 21, the Organization of American States (OAS) legitimized the disruption of a peaceful continuation of power by declaring publicly — in its official role as observer to the election — that a partial, preliminary, and cursory count of the results on October 20 indicated that a second-round election would be required. More critically, the OAS claimed that the more complete preliminary results then just released — pointing toward a Morales victory in the first round — were inexplicable. The OAS has never properly explained its reasons for these judgments, and we disputed the findings. Opposition protests in Bolivia escalated, with protestors setting fire to multiple Tribunal Electoral Departamental offices and targeting officials and their families with violence.

The final straw came when an OAS audit team released preliminary findings for a forthcoming audit report early the morning of November 10. The preliminary findings included a statistical analysis that Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman would characterize as “a joke.” The audit report itself exaggerated the importance of common acts and irregularities, declaring them “grave” or even “deliberate actions that sought to manipulate the results of the election.”

First among the latter, for example, the audit team declared that Bolivia’s electoral authority, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), “deliberately hid” results corresponding to more than 5 percent of the polling stations when it first presented the incomplete preliminary count to the public on the evening of the election. In truth, these results from 5 percent of polling stations simply had not yet been verified, even though a transcription had been transmitted from the polling station. Verifications lagged transmissions in preliminary counts in 2016 and 2017 as well. To some extent, this likely represented a natural backlog in verification. Because this can only take place after transmission, there will often be some pool of unverified results awaiting verification. More critically, verification cannot take place until the transcription of results made at the polling station and a photographic image of the record of the vote — the acta — are both transmitted, and in that order. It is likely that polling stations were marked as transmitted once the transcription was received, even if the image was not yet available. This would make verification of many transmitted actas impossible. Rather than indicating a deliberate act seeking to manipulate the vote, the gap between transmissions and verifications appears normal, and existed in previous preliminary counts.

In another egregious example of exaggeration, the OAS audit declared it a “deliberate act” that tally sheets and voter rolls “were burned, making it impossible to compare them with the information provided in the ballot count.” Of course, this refers to arson committed by the opposition, not by Morales or his supporters, but the OAS points to the insufficient security that permitted the arson — rather than to the arson itself —  as aimed at obscuring the vote.

These and other exaggerations and escalations of severity notwithstanding, Morales had made an agreement with the OAS that committed him to participating in a second-round election. Morales announced this concession to no avail. Amid political violence and threats of violence against high-ranking government officials and MAS party leaders, Morales resigned under pressure from the head of the military and almost didn’t make it out of Bolivia alive. An extra-constitutional government — headed by anti-Indigenous racist second vice president of the Senate Jeanine Áñez — would rule Bolivia for the next year, repeatedly delaying elections until finally yielding to Morales’s former minister of economy and public finance Luis Arce in a decisive first-round vote. In the meantime, Áñez issued a decree exempting the armed forces from criminality in crushing opposition to the coup. This led to the Sacaba Massacre the next day, followed by a massacre in Senkata shortly after.

It is in this context of violence and unsubstantiated allegations that Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover released a paper alleging that the election had been fraudulent — that Morales had failed to garner sufficient votes to win in the first round. Their argument was that tally sheets counted later had disproportionately favored Morales and that absent this inexplicable change, the election had been headed toward a second round. Nearly a year later, they greatly expanded this paper to make wider claims of statistical evidence of fraud.

It is pointless to attempt to statistically “prove” fraud. We can expect that there is at least one fraudulent vote somewhere in any election of reasonable size. The question of whether we can detect it with a statistical model is irrelevant. What is relevant is the political significance: whether we can explain Morales’s first-round victory without relying on fraud as an explanation. This doesn’t mean that actual fraud, too small to change the election outcome, ought to go unpunished; but politically insignificant fraud should not be the basis for overturning an election. Escobari and Hoover make claims of very large, politically significant fraud.

We have previously addressed Escobari and Hoover’s initial claims. This week, we released a lengthy report responding to the newer claims of fraud made by Escobari and Hoover.

In the next post, we will begin a series of installments breaking down their paper, and our response, into more digestible bits. We will start with a tale of two roommates: The Parable of Nickels Before Dimes.

This is the first in a series of blog posts addressing a report by Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover covering the 2019 presidential election in Bolivia. Their conclusions do not hold up to scrutiny, as we observe in our report Nickels Before Dimes. Here, we expand upon various claims and conclusions that Escobari and Hoover make in their paper. Links to past posts: part two, part three, part four, part five, part six and part seven.

On October 25, 2019, election officials in Bolivia announced that incumbent Evo Morales had won reelection. In a nine-way first-round balloting run October 20, the final count showed Morales with 47.08 percent of the valid votes and a 10.56 percentage point lead over runner-up Carlos Mesa. 

However, on October 21, the Organization of American States (OAS) legitimized the disruption of a peaceful continuation of power by declaring publicly — in its official role as observer to the election — that a partial, preliminary, and cursory count of the results on October 20 indicated that a second-round election would be required. More critically, the OAS claimed that the more complete preliminary results then just released — pointing toward a Morales victory in the first round — were inexplicable. The OAS has never properly explained its reasons for these judgments, and we disputed the findings. Opposition protests in Bolivia escalated, with protestors setting fire to multiple Tribunal Electoral Departamental offices and targeting officials and their families with violence.

The final straw came when an OAS audit team released preliminary findings for a forthcoming audit report early the morning of November 10. The preliminary findings included a statistical analysis that Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman would characterize as “a joke.” The audit report itself exaggerated the importance of common acts and irregularities, declaring them “grave” or even “deliberate actions that sought to manipulate the results of the election.”

First among the latter, for example, the audit team declared that Bolivia’s electoral authority, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), “deliberately hid” results corresponding to more than 5 percent of the polling stations when it first presented the incomplete preliminary count to the public on the evening of the election. In truth, these results from 5 percent of polling stations simply had not yet been verified, even though a transcription had been transmitted from the polling station. Verifications lagged transmissions in preliminary counts in 2016 and 2017 as well. To some extent, this likely represented a natural backlog in verification. Because this can only take place after transmission, there will often be some pool of unverified results awaiting verification. More critically, verification cannot take place until the transcription of results made at the polling station and a photographic image of the record of the vote — the acta — are both transmitted, and in that order. It is likely that polling stations were marked as transmitted once the transcription was received, even if the image was not yet available. This would make verification of many transmitted actas impossible. Rather than indicating a deliberate act seeking to manipulate the vote, the gap between transmissions and verifications appears normal, and existed in previous preliminary counts.

In another egregious example of exaggeration, the OAS audit declared it a “deliberate act” that tally sheets and voter rolls “were burned, making it impossible to compare them with the information provided in the ballot count.” Of course, this refers to arson committed by the opposition, not by Morales or his supporters, but the OAS points to the insufficient security that permitted the arson — rather than to the arson itself —  as aimed at obscuring the vote.

These and other exaggerations and escalations of severity notwithstanding, Morales had made an agreement with the OAS that committed him to participating in a second-round election. Morales announced this concession to no avail. Amid political violence and threats of violence against high-ranking government officials and MAS party leaders, Morales resigned under pressure from the head of the military and almost didn’t make it out of Bolivia alive. An extra-constitutional government — headed by anti-Indigenous racist second vice president of the Senate Jeanine Áñez — would rule Bolivia for the next year, repeatedly delaying elections until finally yielding to Morales’s former minister of economy and public finance Luis Arce in a decisive first-round vote. In the meantime, Áñez issued a decree exempting the armed forces from criminality in crushing opposition to the coup. This led to the Sacaba Massacre the next day, followed by a massacre in Senkata shortly after.

It is in this context of violence and unsubstantiated allegations that Diego Escobari and Gary Hoover released a paper alleging that the election had been fraudulent — that Morales had failed to garner sufficient votes to win in the first round. Their argument was that tally sheets counted later had disproportionately favored Morales and that absent this inexplicable change, the election had been headed toward a second round. Nearly a year later, they greatly expanded this paper to make wider claims of statistical evidence of fraud.

It is pointless to attempt to statistically “prove” fraud. We can expect that there is at least one fraudulent vote somewhere in any election of reasonable size. The question of whether we can detect it with a statistical model is irrelevant. What is relevant is the political significance: whether we can explain Morales’s first-round victory without relying on fraud as an explanation. This doesn’t mean that actual fraud, too small to change the election outcome, ought to go unpunished; but politically insignificant fraud should not be the basis for overturning an election. Escobari and Hoover make claims of very large, politically significant fraud.

We have previously addressed Escobari and Hoover’s initial claims. This week, we released a lengthy report responding to the newer claims of fraud made by Escobari and Hoover.

In the next post, we will begin a series of installments breaking down their paper, and our response, into more digestible bits. We will start with a tale of two roommates: The Parable of Nickels Before Dimes.

In English

Traducción por Romina Muni

Xiomara Castro, la presidenta de Honduras, obtuvo una gran victoria para la democracia a principios de este año cuando el Congreso derogó la ley de Zonas de Empleo y Desarrollo Económico (ZEDE) del país. Esta legislación permitió la creación de zonas especiales de gobierno con “autonomía funcional y administrativa” del gobierno nacional. Las zonas permitieron a los inversionistas crear sus propios sistemas de gobierno, reglamentaciones y tribunales, dando lugar a la experimentación de privatización con el fin de crear un “entorno legal adecuado… para lograr competitividad a nivel internacional”. 

Esta política fue muy controvertida y se ganó la oposición de los sindicatos hondureños, los campesinos, las organizaciones indígenas e incluso los grupos empresariales más grandes del país. Según lo descrito por el Departamento de Estado de EE. UU., las zonas “eran ampliamente impopulares, incluso entre gran parte del sector privado, y se las consideraba un vector de corrupción”. Cuando la presidenta Castro propuso abolir esta política, la legislatura hondureña la derogó por unanimidad.

La administración Biden ha argumentado que la corrupción es una de las mayores barreras para el desarrollo en Centroamérica. La “Estrategia de EE. UU. para abordar las raíces de la migración en Centroamérica” de la administración Biden promete “[p]riorizar una agenda anticorrupción…”. Pero cuando este objetivo entra en conflicto con otros, como la promoción de las inversiones de EE. UU., ¿cuál es más importante? Un informe reciente del Departamento de Estado que critica al presidente Castro por eliminar la ley ZEDE sugiere que los intereses privados tienen prioridad sobre la transparencia pública y la rendición de cuentas.

“Compromiso con el Estado de Derecho Comercial”

Aparentemente, la agenda de la administración Biden para Centroamérica está destinada a abordar la “raíz de las cuestiones” que conducen a la migración a los EE. UU. Pero la fuerte dependencia de la atracción de inversiones privadas de corporaciones multinacionales socava muchos de los objetivos más loables de este plan. Al ignorar la explotación corporativa de la tierra y de los trabajadores en sí misma como una de las raíces de la migración, los planes de la Casa Blanca terminan apoyando a algunas de las empresas que son las mismas que crean los problemas que busca resolver.

Cada año, el Departamento de Estado de EE. UU. publica “Informes sobre clima para inversiones” para países de todo el mundo, identificando las políticas exteriores que se consideran beneficiosas o perjudiciales para los intereses de las empresas estadounidenses. Los informes sirven como una señal para los inversionistas, pero también ayudan a dar forma a las prioridades del gobierno en su interacción con otros países y con diplomáticos estadounidenses que “trabajan con países socios para abordar estas barreras…”.

El Informe sobre clima para inversiones 2022 para Honduras es el primer informe de este tipo que el gobierno de EE. UU. emite para el gobierno de la presidenta Castro, quien obtuvo una victoria aplastante en las elecciones del año pasado. Una de las claves del éxito de su coalición fue su promesa de abordar la corrupción desenfrenada en la política hondureña encarnada por el presidente anterior, Juan Orlando Hernández (“JOH”), quien ahora está acusado en los Estados Unidos por cargos de narcotráfico.

Cuando Castro ganó las elecciones presidenciales del año pasado, el Departamento de Estado la felicitó y dijo que la ayudaría a “combatir la corrupción”. Sin embargo, cuando eligió comentar sobre la derogación de la ley ZEDE, el Departamento de Estado condenó la medida con duros términos: “el gobierno [hondureño] se ha expuesto a sí mismo a una carga de responsabilidad potencialmente importante ante la cual responder y ha alimentado las preocupaciones sobre el compromiso del gobierno con el Estado de derecho comercial”.

El informe critica a Castro por haber eliminado la impopular política en vez de “intentar implementar reformas o buscar un diálogo con los inversionistas de la ZEDE”. La medida, afirman, “contribuyó a la incertidumbre sobre el compromiso del gobierno con las protecciones para la inversión requeridas por los tratados internacionales”. 

La condena del gobierno de EE. UU. contradice directamente sus compromisos públicos contra la corrupción. Aunque los promotores de la ZEDE afirman que la autonomía de las zonas proporciona a los hondureños y a los inversionistas extranjeros una alternativa al sistema legal “corrupto” hondureño, el modelo en realidad combina la falta de rendición de cuentas públicas y profundos conflictos de interés con el financiamiento secreto, creando así un ambiente perfecto para la corrupción.

A las zonas se les permite crear “su propia policía, así como agencias encargadas de la investigación criminal, inteligencia, enjuiciamiento y… un sistema penitenciario”. Sin embargo, estas agencias privadas no tienen la obligación de compartir información con los ciudadanos locales e incluso pueden decidir unilateralmente limitar su cooperación con las autoridades gubernamentales de Honduras. Una zona, Ciudad Morazán, ha declarado que la policía hondureña no puede ingresar “sin invitación y supervisión”. 

Las zonas mismas son aprobadas y constituidas en secreto. El organismo creado en la ley de 2013 para supervisar el desarrollo de las ZEDE, el Comité para la Adopción de Mejores Prácticas (CAMP), ha sido objeto de escrutinio por su falta de transparencia y su carácter antidemocrático. Si bien los miembros originales del comité internacional tenían que ser ratificados por el Congreso, el comité puede reemplazar a sus propios miembros sin supervisión. Nadie sabe quién está actualmente en ese comité, a pesar de las múltiples solicitudes de divulgación presentadas por académicos y organizaciones de la sociedad civil en virtud de las leyes de acceso a la información. Una lista de miembros de 2013 incluye a exintegrantes del Grupo de Alcance para Centroamérica de Ronald Reagan y actores problemáticos como Ebal Díaz, un exasesor de JOH que pudo haber huido del país recientemente para evitar una investigación por corrupción. 

El CAMP, con sus miembros no electos, tiene una cantidad desproporcionada de poder en Honduras. Hay tres zonas que se conocen fueron aprobadas por el CAMP a puertas cerradas, pero el comité aún tiene que publicar información sobre otras zonas bajo consideración. En áreas de baja densidad poblacional en las costas norte y sur de Honduras, el CAMP tiene autoridad exclusiva para aprobar nuevas zonas, sin que se necesite la aprobación del Congreso. El CAMP puede incluso intervenir en la formulación de políticas internas de una zona e influir en la selección de quien la lidere, la “Secretaría Técnica”. Mientras tanto, nada impide que los miembros del CAMP ocupen posiciones de poder en los gobiernos de las ZEDE. 

De hecho, la corrupción es una de las únicas razones por las cuales se implementó la política ZEDE. Después del golpe de estado de 2009 contra el esposo de Xiomara Castro, el entonces presidente Manuel Zelaya, el gobierno golpista de Honduras lanzó su primer intento de crear jurisdicciones especiales, para el placer de los ricos inversionistas libertarios de los EE. UU. Paul Romer, un economista ganador del Premio Nobel que ayudó a inspirar la política, rápidamente se distanció de ella, citando preocupaciones sobre la falta de transparencia.

La política, entonces conocida como la ley de “Regiones Especiales de Desarrollo” (RED), fue rápidamente cuestionada por grupos indígenas, afroindígenas y de derechos territoriales de todo el país. Pronto fue declarada inconstitucional por la Corte Suprema de Honduras. En 2012, la legislatura hondureña respondió a esto reemplazando a cuatro de los cinco jueces de la Corte Suprema. El único juez que votó a favor de las zonas RED, Oscar Chinchilla, fue posteriormente nombrado Fiscal General de Honduras. Una vez eliminada toda oposición judicial, se reintrodujo la ley ZEDE modificada y se la agregó formalmente a la constitución nacional. Por lo tanto, la aprobación misma de la ley fue posible gracias a que las élites hondureñas inclinaron la ley en beneficio de los inversionistas.

¿Quién se beneficia?

La primera zona que se abrió en Honduras, “Próspera”, rápidamente se convirtió en un imán para la polémica. Provocó la resistencia del pueblo cercano de Crawfish Rock, donde el proyecto interfirió en los asuntos locales y el acceso al agua. Más recientemente, la zona se ha unido al país vecino de El Salvador en aceptar Bitcoin como moneda. Si bien Próspera afirma adherirse a los estándares contra el lavado de dinero, organizaciones como Fitch Ratings y el Fondo Monetario Internacional han advertido que dicha política podría aumentar las oportunidades para el lavado de dinero.

¿Quiénes son los inversores que respaldan estos proyectos zonales? Nadie lo sabe con seguridad. “Honduras Próspera, LLC” es una subsidiaria registrada de NeWay Capital, una firma de inversión con sede en Washington, DC. El CEO de NeWay Capital, Erick Brimen, se refiere a sí mismo como “Fundador y CEO de Próspera” y es miembro del Consejo de Síndicos que gobierna la zona. Él también ha sugerido al Financial Times que el proyecto Próspera contaba con el respaldo de la Embajada de Estados Unidos. 

Muchos de los miembros de la junta de Próspera e inversionistas conocidos están asociados con el movimiento libertario de “ciudades libres” y la política conservadora en general. Uno de los inversores es Pronomos Capital, un fondo dirigido por el nieto de Milton Friedman y respaldado por el multimillonario de extrema derecha Peter Thiel. Otro es Free Private Cities Inc., cuyo CEO comentó en una entrevista que Próspera puede ser selectiva sobre a quién se permite ingresar a la zona: el gobierno privado “se reserva el derecho de no aceptar delincuentes graves, comunistas e islamistas”. 

A pesar de la derogación de la ley que autorizó su existencia, las ZEDE continúan operando actualmente. El gobierno de Honduras insiste en que éstas se reorganicen de manera tal de seguir los estándares legales utilizados por otras zonas económicas especiales, pero Próspera ha sugerido que ignorará dichos estándares. La empresa aprovechó el informe del Departamento de Estado para afirmar que no tiene que cambiar nada, argumentando que “[l]a derogación de la ley ZEDE no puede interpretarse legalmente como la eliminación de las ZEDE existentes”. Incluso en la derrota, estos territorios privados se niegan a reconocer la autoridad superior del gobierno hondureño.

La rendición de cuentas y la democracia deben ser la prioridad

Al condenar la derogación de la ley ZEDE, el Departamento de Estado sigue poniendo los intereses del sector empresarial estadounidense por encima de las intenciones que ha declarado tener sobre Centroamérica. De hecho, tal postura revela una lealtad al “Estado de derecho comercial” a expensas del Estado de derecho democrático. Al dar prioridad a las empresas de inversión con sede en los EE. UU., como NeWay Capital, sobre la transparencia básica, la rendición de cuentas y la gobernanza democrática participativa, el gobierno de los EE. UU. está contribuyendo a los problemas que aquejan a la región. 

En una nación donde la corrupción ya está profundamente arraigada, las zonas gubernamentales privadas con turbios flujos de efectivo y poca supervisión pueden servir como caldo de cultivo para el juego sucio. Si la administración Biden se tomase en serio el abordaje de las causas que son la raíz de la migración forzada en Centroamérica y realmente quisiera apoyar a la democracia constitucional en la región, entonces debería reconocer el fin de las ZEDE como un positivo paso adelante.

In English

Traducción por Romina Muni

Xiomara Castro, la presidenta de Honduras, obtuvo una gran victoria para la democracia a principios de este año cuando el Congreso derogó la ley de Zonas de Empleo y Desarrollo Económico (ZEDE) del país. Esta legislación permitió la creación de zonas especiales de gobierno con “autonomía funcional y administrativa” del gobierno nacional. Las zonas permitieron a los inversionistas crear sus propios sistemas de gobierno, reglamentaciones y tribunales, dando lugar a la experimentación de privatización con el fin de crear un “entorno legal adecuado… para lograr competitividad a nivel internacional”. 

Esta política fue muy controvertida y se ganó la oposición de los sindicatos hondureños, los campesinos, las organizaciones indígenas e incluso los grupos empresariales más grandes del país. Según lo descrito por el Departamento de Estado de EE. UU., las zonas “eran ampliamente impopulares, incluso entre gran parte del sector privado, y se las consideraba un vector de corrupción”. Cuando la presidenta Castro propuso abolir esta política, la legislatura hondureña la derogó por unanimidad.

La administración Biden ha argumentado que la corrupción es una de las mayores barreras para el desarrollo en Centroamérica. La “Estrategia de EE. UU. para abordar las raíces de la migración en Centroamérica” de la administración Biden promete “[p]riorizar una agenda anticorrupción…”. Pero cuando este objetivo entra en conflicto con otros, como la promoción de las inversiones de EE. UU., ¿cuál es más importante? Un informe reciente del Departamento de Estado que critica al presidente Castro por eliminar la ley ZEDE sugiere que los intereses privados tienen prioridad sobre la transparencia pública y la rendición de cuentas.

“Compromiso con el Estado de Derecho Comercial”

Aparentemente, la agenda de la administración Biden para Centroamérica está destinada a abordar la “raíz de las cuestiones” que conducen a la migración a los EE. UU. Pero la fuerte dependencia de la atracción de inversiones privadas de corporaciones multinacionales socava muchos de los objetivos más loables de este plan. Al ignorar la explotación corporativa de la tierra y de los trabajadores en sí misma como una de las raíces de la migración, los planes de la Casa Blanca terminan apoyando a algunas de las empresas que son las mismas que crean los problemas que busca resolver.

Cada año, el Departamento de Estado de EE. UU. publica “Informes sobre clima para inversiones” para países de todo el mundo, identificando las políticas exteriores que se consideran beneficiosas o perjudiciales para los intereses de las empresas estadounidenses. Los informes sirven como una señal para los inversionistas, pero también ayudan a dar forma a las prioridades del gobierno en su interacción con otros países y con diplomáticos estadounidenses que “trabajan con países socios para abordar estas barreras…”.

El Informe sobre clima para inversiones 2022 para Honduras es el primer informe de este tipo que el gobierno de EE. UU. emite para el gobierno de la presidenta Castro, quien obtuvo una victoria aplastante en las elecciones del año pasado. Una de las claves del éxito de su coalición fue su promesa de abordar la corrupción desenfrenada en la política hondureña encarnada por el presidente anterior, Juan Orlando Hernández (“JOH”), quien ahora está acusado en los Estados Unidos por cargos de narcotráfico.

Cuando Castro ganó las elecciones presidenciales del año pasado, el Departamento de Estado la felicitó y dijo que la ayudaría a “combatir la corrupción”. Sin embargo, cuando eligió comentar sobre la derogación de la ley ZEDE, el Departamento de Estado condenó la medida con duros términos: “el gobierno [hondureño] se ha expuesto a sí mismo a una carga de responsabilidad potencialmente importante ante la cual responder y ha alimentado las preocupaciones sobre el compromiso del gobierno con el Estado de derecho comercial”.

El informe critica a Castro por haber eliminado la impopular política en vez de “intentar implementar reformas o buscar un diálogo con los inversionistas de la ZEDE”. La medida, afirman, “contribuyó a la incertidumbre sobre el compromiso del gobierno con las protecciones para la inversión requeridas por los tratados internacionales”. 

La condena del gobierno de EE. UU. contradice directamente sus compromisos públicos contra la corrupción. Aunque los promotores de la ZEDE afirman que la autonomía de las zonas proporciona a los hondureños y a los inversionistas extranjeros una alternativa al sistema legal “corrupto” hondureño, el modelo en realidad combina la falta de rendición de cuentas públicas y profundos conflictos de interés con el financiamiento secreto, creando así un ambiente perfecto para la corrupción.

A las zonas se les permite crear “su propia policía, así como agencias encargadas de la investigación criminal, inteligencia, enjuiciamiento y… un sistema penitenciario”. Sin embargo, estas agencias privadas no tienen la obligación de compartir información con los ciudadanos locales e incluso pueden decidir unilateralmente limitar su cooperación con las autoridades gubernamentales de Honduras. Una zona, Ciudad Morazán, ha declarado que la policía hondureña no puede ingresar “sin invitación y supervisión”. 

Las zonas mismas son aprobadas y constituidas en secreto. El organismo creado en la ley de 2013 para supervisar el desarrollo de las ZEDE, el Comité para la Adopción de Mejores Prácticas (CAMP), ha sido objeto de escrutinio por su falta de transparencia y su carácter antidemocrático. Si bien los miembros originales del comité internacional tenían que ser ratificados por el Congreso, el comité puede reemplazar a sus propios miembros sin supervisión. Nadie sabe quién está actualmente en ese comité, a pesar de las múltiples solicitudes de divulgación presentadas por académicos y organizaciones de la sociedad civil en virtud de las leyes de acceso a la información. Una lista de miembros de 2013 incluye a exintegrantes del Grupo de Alcance para Centroamérica de Ronald Reagan y actores problemáticos como Ebal Díaz, un exasesor de JOH que pudo haber huido del país recientemente para evitar una investigación por corrupción. 

El CAMP, con sus miembros no electos, tiene una cantidad desproporcionada de poder en Honduras. Hay tres zonas que se conocen fueron aprobadas por el CAMP a puertas cerradas, pero el comité aún tiene que publicar información sobre otras zonas bajo consideración. En áreas de baja densidad poblacional en las costas norte y sur de Honduras, el CAMP tiene autoridad exclusiva para aprobar nuevas zonas, sin que se necesite la aprobación del Congreso. El CAMP puede incluso intervenir en la formulación de políticas internas de una zona e influir en la selección de quien la lidere, la “Secretaría Técnica”. Mientras tanto, nada impide que los miembros del CAMP ocupen posiciones de poder en los gobiernos de las ZEDE. 

De hecho, la corrupción es una de las únicas razones por las cuales se implementó la política ZEDE. Después del golpe de estado de 2009 contra el esposo de Xiomara Castro, el entonces presidente Manuel Zelaya, el gobierno golpista de Honduras lanzó su primer intento de crear jurisdicciones especiales, para el placer de los ricos inversionistas libertarios de los EE. UU. Paul Romer, un economista ganador del Premio Nobel que ayudó a inspirar la política, rápidamente se distanció de ella, citando preocupaciones sobre la falta de transparencia.

La política, entonces conocida como la ley de “Regiones Especiales de Desarrollo” (RED), fue rápidamente cuestionada por grupos indígenas, afroindígenas y de derechos territoriales de todo el país. Pronto fue declarada inconstitucional por la Corte Suprema de Honduras. En 2012, la legislatura hondureña respondió a esto reemplazando a cuatro de los cinco jueces de la Corte Suprema. El único juez que votó a favor de las zonas RED, Oscar Chinchilla, fue posteriormente nombrado Fiscal General de Honduras. Una vez eliminada toda oposición judicial, se reintrodujo la ley ZEDE modificada y se la agregó formalmente a la constitución nacional. Por lo tanto, la aprobación misma de la ley fue posible gracias a que las élites hondureñas inclinaron la ley en beneficio de los inversionistas.

¿Quién se beneficia?

La primera zona que se abrió en Honduras, “Próspera”, rápidamente se convirtió en un imán para la polémica. Provocó la resistencia del pueblo cercano de Crawfish Rock, donde el proyecto interfirió en los asuntos locales y el acceso al agua. Más recientemente, la zona se ha unido al país vecino de El Salvador en aceptar Bitcoin como moneda. Si bien Próspera afirma adherirse a los estándares contra el lavado de dinero, organizaciones como Fitch Ratings y el Fondo Monetario Internacional han advertido que dicha política podría aumentar las oportunidades para el lavado de dinero.

¿Quiénes son los inversores que respaldan estos proyectos zonales? Nadie lo sabe con seguridad. “Honduras Próspera, LLC” es una subsidiaria registrada de NeWay Capital, una firma de inversión con sede en Washington, DC. El CEO de NeWay Capital, Erick Brimen, se refiere a sí mismo como “Fundador y CEO de Próspera” y es miembro del Consejo de Síndicos que gobierna la zona. Él también ha sugerido al Financial Times que el proyecto Próspera contaba con el respaldo de la Embajada de Estados Unidos. 

Muchos de los miembros de la junta de Próspera e inversionistas conocidos están asociados con el movimiento libertario de “ciudades libres” y la política conservadora en general. Uno de los inversores es Pronomos Capital, un fondo dirigido por el nieto de Milton Friedman y respaldado por el multimillonario de extrema derecha Peter Thiel. Otro es Free Private Cities Inc., cuyo CEO comentó en una entrevista que Próspera puede ser selectiva sobre a quién se permite ingresar a la zona: el gobierno privado “se reserva el derecho de no aceptar delincuentes graves, comunistas e islamistas”. 

A pesar de la derogación de la ley que autorizó su existencia, las ZEDE continúan operando actualmente. El gobierno de Honduras insiste en que éstas se reorganicen de manera tal de seguir los estándares legales utilizados por otras zonas económicas especiales, pero Próspera ha sugerido que ignorará dichos estándares. La empresa aprovechó el informe del Departamento de Estado para afirmar que no tiene que cambiar nada, argumentando que “[l]a derogación de la ley ZEDE no puede interpretarse legalmente como la eliminación de las ZEDE existentes”. Incluso en la derrota, estos territorios privados se niegan a reconocer la autoridad superior del gobierno hondureño.

La rendición de cuentas y la democracia deben ser la prioridad

Al condenar la derogación de la ley ZEDE, el Departamento de Estado sigue poniendo los intereses del sector empresarial estadounidense por encima de las intenciones que ha declarado tener sobre Centroamérica. De hecho, tal postura revela una lealtad al “Estado de derecho comercial” a expensas del Estado de derecho democrático. Al dar prioridad a las empresas de inversión con sede en los EE. UU., como NeWay Capital, sobre la transparencia básica, la rendición de cuentas y la gobernanza democrática participativa, el gobierno de los EE. UU. está contribuyendo a los problemas que aquejan a la región. 

En una nación donde la corrupción ya está profundamente arraigada, las zonas gubernamentales privadas con turbios flujos de efectivo y poca supervisión pueden servir como caldo de cultivo para el juego sucio. Si la administración Biden se tomase en serio el abordaje de las causas que son la raíz de la migración forzada en Centroamérica y realmente quisiera apoyar a la democracia constitucional en la región, entonces debería reconocer el fin de las ZEDE como un positivo paso adelante.

En español

Xiomara Castro, the president of Honduras, won a major victory for democracy earlier this year when Congress repealed the country’s Zonas de Empleo y Desarrollo Económico law (ZEDE, or “Economic Development and Employment Zones” in English). The legislation enabled the creation of special governance zones, which have “functional and administrative autonomy” from the national government. The zones allowed investors to create their own governance systems, regulations, and courts, providing room for experimentation with privatized government to create a “legal environment adequate … to be competitive at the international level.” 

This policy was highly controversial, earning the opposition of Honduran labor unions, campesinos, Indigenous organizations, and even the nation’s largest business groups. As described by the US State Department, the zones “were broadly unpopular, including with much of the private sector, and viewed as a vector for corruption.” When President Castro proposed abolishing the policy, the Honduran legislature repealed it unanimously.

The Biden administration has argued that corruption is one of the largest barriers to development in Central America. The Biden administration’s “U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America” promises to “[p]rioritize an anticorruption agenda .…” But when this goal conflicts with others, like promoting US investment, which is more important? A recent report from the State Department criticizing President Castro for eliminating the ZEDE law suggests that private interests take priority over public transparency and accountability.

“Commitment to Commercial Rule of Law”

The Biden administration’s agenda for Central America is ostensibly meant to address the “root causes” that lead to migration to the US. But the plan’s heavy reliance on attracting private investment from multinational corporations undermines many of its most laudable goals. By ignoring corporate exploitation of land and workers as a root cause of migration in itself, the White House’s plans will support some of the very businesses creating the problems that they hope to solve.

Each year, the US State Department releases “Investment Climate Statements” for countries around the world, identifying foreign policies which are viewed as beneficial or harmful to the interests of US companies. The reports serve as a signal to investors, but they also help to shape the government’s priorities when interacting with other countries and with US diplomats “working with partner countries to address these barriers .…”

The 2022 Investment Climate Statement for Honduras is the US government’s first time issuing such a report for the government of President Castro, who won a landslide victory in last year’s elections. One of the keys to her coalition’s success was their pledge to address the rampant corruption in Honduran politics embodied by the prior president, Juan Orlando Hernández (“JOH”), who is now under indictment in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

When Castro won last year’s presidential election, the State Department congratulated her and said it would assist in “fighting corruption.” Yet when it chose to comment on the repeal of the ZEDE law, the State Department condemned the move in harsh terms: “the [Honduran] government has exposed itself to potentially significant liability and fueled concerns about the government’s commitment to commercial rule of law.”

The report criticizes Castro for eliminating the unpopular policy rather than “pursuing reforms or seeking dialogue with the ZEDE investors.” The move, they claim, “contributed to uncertainty over the government’s commitment to investment protections required by international treaties.” 

The US government’s condemnation contradicts their public anti-corruption commitments directly. Even though ZEDE promoters claim that the autonomy of the zones will provide alternatives for Hondurans and foreign investors to the “corrupt” Honduran legal system, the model actually combines a lack of public accountability and embedded conflicts of interest with secretive financing to create a perfect environment for corruption.

The zones are allowed to create “their own police, as well as agencies tasked with criminal investigation, intelligence, prosecution, and … a penitentiary system.” However, these private agencies are under no obligation to share information with local citizens and can even unilaterally decide to limit their cooperation with Honduran government authorities. One zone, Ciudad Morazán, has declared that Honduran police are not allowed inside “without an invitation and supervision.” 

The zones themselves are approved and constituted in secret. The body formed in the 2013 law to oversee ZEDE development, the Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices (CAMP), has been scrutinized for its lack of transparency and its antidemocratic nature. While the original members of the international committee had to be ratified by Congress, the committee can replace its own members with no oversight. No one knows who is currently on it, despite multiple requests for disclosure filed by scholars and civil society organizations under access to information laws. A list of members from 2013 includes former members of Ronald Reagan’s Outreach Group on Central America and problematic actors such as Ebal Díaz, a former JOH advisor who may have recently fled the country to avoid a corruption investigation. 

The unelected CAMP has a disproportionate amount of power in Honduras. The CAMP approved three known zones behind closed doors, and the committee has yet to publish information about other zones under consideration. In areas of low population density on the northern and southern coasts of Honduras, the CAMP has exclusive authority to approve new zones; no congressional approval is needed. The CAMP can even intervene in a zone’s internal policy-making and influence the selection of its leader, the “Technical Secretariat.” Meanwhile, there is nothing barring CAMP members from holding positions of power within ZEDE governments. 

Indeed, corruption is one of the only reasons the ZEDE policy came into place. After the 2009 coup d’etat against Xiomara Castro’s husband, then president Manuel Zelaya, the coup government of Honduras launched their first attempt at creating special jurisdictions, much to the pleasure of wealthy libertarian investors from the US. Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who helped inspire the policy, quickly distanced himself from it, citing concerns about a lack of transparency.

The policy, then known as the “Regiones Especiales de Desarrollo” (RED) law, was quickly challenged by Indigenous, Afro-Indigenous, and land rights groups throughout the country. It was soon deemed unconstitutional by the Honduran Supreme Court. In 2012, the Honduran legislature responded by replacing four of the five Supreme Court judges. The only judge who voted in favor of the RED zones, Oscar Chinchilla, was subsequently made attorney general of Honduras. With all judicial opposition eliminated, the modified ZEDE law was reintroduced and formally added to the national constitution. Thus, the law’s very passage was made possible by Honduran elites bending the law to the benefit of investors.

Who Benefits?

The first zone to open in Honduras, “Próspera,” quickly became a magnet for controversy. It provoked resistance from the nearby village of Crawfish Rock, where the project interfered in local affairs and water access. More recently, the zone has joined the neighboring country of El Salvador in accepting Bitcoin as currency. While Próspera claims to adhere to anti-money-laundering standards, organizations from Fitch Ratings to the International Monetary Fund have cautioned that such a policy could increase opportunities for money laundering.

Who are the investors backing these zone projects? No one knows for sure. “Honduras Próspera, LLC” is a trademarked subsidiary of NeWay Capital, an investment firm based in Washington, DC. NeWay Capital’s CEO Erick Brimen refers to himself as “Founder and CEO of Próspera” and serves on the Council of Trustees that governs the zone. He has also suggested to the Financial Times that the Próspera project had the backing of the US Embassy. 

Many of Próspera’s board members and known investors are associated with the libertarian “free cities” movement and conservative politics generally. One investor is Pronomos Capital, a fund led by Milton Friedman’s grandson and supported by far-right billionaire Peter Thiel. Another is Free Private Cities Inc., whose CEO remarked in an interview that Próspera may be selective about whom it allows into the zone: the private government “reserve[s] the right not to accept serious criminals, communists and Islamists.” 

Despite the law’s repeal which authorized their existence, ZEDEs are still in operation today. The Honduran government is insisting they reorganize to follow the legal standards used by other special economic zones, but Próspera has suggested that it will ignore them. The company seized upon the State Department’s report to claim that it does not have to change, arguing that “[t]he repeal of the ZEDEs cannot be legally interpreted as the elimination of the existing ZEDEs.” Even in defeat, these private territories are refusing to acknowledge the higher authority of the Honduran government.

Accountability and Democracy Must Come First

In condemning the repeal of the ZEDE law, the State Department continues to place the interests of the US business sector above its own stated intentions in Central America. In fact, such a stance reveals a loyalty to “commercial rule of law” at the expense of democratic rule of law. By prioritizing US-based investment firms like NeWay Capital over basic transparency, accountability, and participatory democratic governance, the US government is contributing to the issues plaguing the region. 

In a nation where corruption is already entrenched, private governmental zones with opaque cash flows and little oversight can serve as a breeding ground for foul play. If the Biden administration is serious about tackling the root causes of forced migration in Central America and genuinely wants to support constitutional democracy in the region, then it should recognize the end of the ZEDEs as a positive step forward.

En español

Xiomara Castro, the president of Honduras, won a major victory for democracy earlier this year when Congress repealed the country’s Zonas de Empleo y Desarrollo Económico law (ZEDE, or “Economic Development and Employment Zones” in English). The legislation enabled the creation of special governance zones, which have “functional and administrative autonomy” from the national government. The zones allowed investors to create their own governance systems, regulations, and courts, providing room for experimentation with privatized government to create a “legal environment adequate … to be competitive at the international level.” 

This policy was highly controversial, earning the opposition of Honduran labor unions, campesinos, Indigenous organizations, and even the nation’s largest business groups. As described by the US State Department, the zones “were broadly unpopular, including with much of the private sector, and viewed as a vector for corruption.” When President Castro proposed abolishing the policy, the Honduran legislature repealed it unanimously.

The Biden administration has argued that corruption is one of the largest barriers to development in Central America. The Biden administration’s “U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America” promises to “[p]rioritize an anticorruption agenda .…” But when this goal conflicts with others, like promoting US investment, which is more important? A recent report from the State Department criticizing President Castro for eliminating the ZEDE law suggests that private interests take priority over public transparency and accountability.

“Commitment to Commercial Rule of Law”

The Biden administration’s agenda for Central America is ostensibly meant to address the “root causes” that lead to migration to the US. But the plan’s heavy reliance on attracting private investment from multinational corporations undermines many of its most laudable goals. By ignoring corporate exploitation of land and workers as a root cause of migration in itself, the White House’s plans will support some of the very businesses creating the problems that they hope to solve.

Each year, the US State Department releases “Investment Climate Statements” for countries around the world, identifying foreign policies which are viewed as beneficial or harmful to the interests of US companies. The reports serve as a signal to investors, but they also help to shape the government’s priorities when interacting with other countries and with US diplomats “working with partner countries to address these barriers .…”

The 2022 Investment Climate Statement for Honduras is the US government’s first time issuing such a report for the government of President Castro, who won a landslide victory in last year’s elections. One of the keys to her coalition’s success was their pledge to address the rampant corruption in Honduran politics embodied by the prior president, Juan Orlando Hernández (“JOH”), who is now under indictment in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

When Castro won last year’s presidential election, the State Department congratulated her and said it would assist in “fighting corruption.” Yet when it chose to comment on the repeal of the ZEDE law, the State Department condemned the move in harsh terms: “the [Honduran] government has exposed itself to potentially significant liability and fueled concerns about the government’s commitment to commercial rule of law.”

The report criticizes Castro for eliminating the unpopular policy rather than “pursuing reforms or seeking dialogue with the ZEDE investors.” The move, they claim, “contributed to uncertainty over the government’s commitment to investment protections required by international treaties.” 

The US government’s condemnation contradicts their public anti-corruption commitments directly. Even though ZEDE promoters claim that the autonomy of the zones will provide alternatives for Hondurans and foreign investors to the “corrupt” Honduran legal system, the model actually combines a lack of public accountability and embedded conflicts of interest with secretive financing to create a perfect environment for corruption.

The zones are allowed to create “their own police, as well as agencies tasked with criminal investigation, intelligence, prosecution, and … a penitentiary system.” However, these private agencies are under no obligation to share information with local citizens and can even unilaterally decide to limit their cooperation with Honduran government authorities. One zone, Ciudad Morazán, has declared that Honduran police are not allowed inside “without an invitation and supervision.” 

The zones themselves are approved and constituted in secret. The body formed in the 2013 law to oversee ZEDE development, the Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices (CAMP), has been scrutinized for its lack of transparency and its antidemocratic nature. While the original members of the international committee had to be ratified by Congress, the committee can replace its own members with no oversight. No one knows who is currently on it, despite multiple requests for disclosure filed by scholars and civil society organizations under access to information laws. A list of members from 2013 includes former members of Ronald Reagan’s Outreach Group on Central America and problematic actors such as Ebal Díaz, a former JOH advisor who may have recently fled the country to avoid a corruption investigation. 

The unelected CAMP has a disproportionate amount of power in Honduras. The CAMP approved three known zones behind closed doors, and the committee has yet to publish information about other zones under consideration. In areas of low population density on the northern and southern coasts of Honduras, the CAMP has exclusive authority to approve new zones; no congressional approval is needed. The CAMP can even intervene in a zone’s internal policy-making and influence the selection of its leader, the “Technical Secretariat.” Meanwhile, there is nothing barring CAMP members from holding positions of power within ZEDE governments. 

Indeed, corruption is one of the only reasons the ZEDE policy came into place. After the 2009 coup d’etat against Xiomara Castro’s husband, then president Manuel Zelaya, the coup government of Honduras launched their first attempt at creating special jurisdictions, much to the pleasure of wealthy libertarian investors from the US. Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who helped inspire the policy, quickly distanced himself from it, citing concerns about a lack of transparency.

The policy, then known as the “Regiones Especiales de Desarrollo” (RED) law, was quickly challenged by Indigenous, Afro-Indigenous, and land rights groups throughout the country. It was soon deemed unconstitutional by the Honduran Supreme Court. In 2012, the Honduran legislature responded by replacing four of the five Supreme Court judges. The only judge who voted in favor of the RED zones, Oscar Chinchilla, was subsequently made attorney general of Honduras. With all judicial opposition eliminated, the modified ZEDE law was reintroduced and formally added to the national constitution. Thus, the law’s very passage was made possible by Honduran elites bending the law to the benefit of investors.

Who Benefits?

The first zone to open in Honduras, “Próspera,” quickly became a magnet for controversy. It provoked resistance from the nearby village of Crawfish Rock, where the project interfered in local affairs and water access. More recently, the zone has joined the neighboring country of El Salvador in accepting Bitcoin as currency. While Próspera claims to adhere to anti-money-laundering standards, organizations from Fitch Ratings to the International Monetary Fund have cautioned that such a policy could increase opportunities for money laundering.

Who are the investors backing these zone projects? No one knows for sure. “Honduras Próspera, LLC” is a trademarked subsidiary of NeWay Capital, an investment firm based in Washington, DC. NeWay Capital’s CEO Erick Brimen refers to himself as “Founder and CEO of Próspera” and serves on the Council of Trustees that governs the zone. He has also suggested to the Financial Times that the Próspera project had the backing of the US Embassy. 

Many of Próspera’s board members and known investors are associated with the libertarian “free cities” movement and conservative politics generally. One investor is Pronomos Capital, a fund led by Milton Friedman’s grandson and supported by far-right billionaire Peter Thiel. Another is Free Private Cities Inc., whose CEO remarked in an interview that Próspera may be selective about whom it allows into the zone: the private government “reserve[s] the right not to accept serious criminals, communists and Islamists.” 

Despite the law’s repeal which authorized their existence, ZEDEs are still in operation today. The Honduran government is insisting they reorganize to follow the legal standards used by other special economic zones, but Próspera has suggested that it will ignore them. The company seized upon the State Department’s report to claim that it does not have to change, arguing that “[t]he repeal of the ZEDEs cannot be legally interpreted as the elimination of the existing ZEDEs.” Even in defeat, these private territories are refusing to acknowledge the higher authority of the Honduran government.

Accountability and Democracy Must Come First

In condemning the repeal of the ZEDE law, the State Department continues to place the interests of the US business sector above its own stated intentions in Central America. In fact, such a stance reveals a loyalty to “commercial rule of law” at the expense of democratic rule of law. By prioritizing US-based investment firms like NeWay Capital over basic transparency, accountability, and participatory democratic governance, the US government is contributing to the issues plaguing the region. 

In a nation where corruption is already entrenched, private governmental zones with opaque cash flows and little oversight can serve as a breeding ground for foul play. If the Biden administration is serious about tackling the root causes of forced migration in Central America and genuinely wants to support constitutional democracy in the region, then it should recognize the end of the ZEDEs as a positive step forward.

Meta is the king of the social media world. Not only is the company’s flagship product, Facebook, the world’s largest social networking platform, but two of its other properties — WhatsApp and Instagram — are also in the top five. With this popularity has come significant controversy, especially regarding the role Meta’s platforms play in disseminating political disinformation and “fake news.”

Lying is hardly a new development in politics, but social media companies have created new opportunities for powerful actors to spread lies at an unprecedented scale and speed. In Brazil, Meta’s platforms were used as tools for nationwide disinformation campaigns that helped far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro win the 2018 presidential election. Facing widespread criticism over this and similar campaigns elsewhere, Meta said it would take decisive action to stem the spread of lies. Yet the evidence so far suggests that disinformation continues to run rampant on its Brazilian platforms. 

This time around, the tidal wave of “fake news” circulating on Meta’s social media platforms is helping to promote Bolsonaro’s Trump-like effort to discredit this Sunday’s presidential election, which polls suggest he will ultimately lose. This new, largely unchecked disinformation campaign could have devastating consequences for Brazil, and for the planet. 

Lies, Damned Lies, and Posts

A national law passed in 2017 made a number of changes to Brazilian electoral law, including a reform that allowed candidates to pay to boost content on social media. While this measure moved forward, another controversial proposal to require social media companies to remove “fake news” and hate speech was vetoed by then (interim) president Michel Temer. In other words, while restrictions on online campaigning were loosened, online disinformation remained unchecked.

When the 2018 election season began, online disinformation campaigns became nearly unavoidable. According to a former data scientist at Facebook, the platform’s enforcement efforts often fell far short of its own guidelines – yet this limited effort still identified and removed “10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the US in the 2018 elections …” Facebook campaigns were only the tip of the iceberg; Meta’s other platforms would pose an even larger problem.

In a scandal that broke after the first round of Brazil’s 2018 elections, it was revealed that wealthy businessmen had illegally funded an operation obtaining millions of phone numbers from Facebook and sending political disinformation to their WhatsApp accounts. The app is widely popular in Brazil as a free alternative to text messaging, and 48 percent of online Brazilians rely on it as a source of news.

The scale of the WhatsApp campaign was enormous. One of the false news stories it promoted — that Bolsonaro’s opponent was sending out “gay kits” to schools in order to indoctrinate children into homosexuality — had a far-reaching impact in Brazil, much of which remains deeply conservative on social issues. This blatantly fake story was seen by 74 percent of voters, and 56 percent of those who saw it say they believed it. According to the same survey, a shocking 93 percent of Bolsonaro voters reported that they had seen stories (falsely) claiming that ballot boxes were rigged. An analysis of viral WhatsApp messages sent during the campaign found that messages spread by right-wing sources were 14 times as likely to contain verifiably false information as those from left-wing sources.

Democracy on the Brink

The sheer size of the WhatsApp operation during the presidential campaign provoked serious concerns about social media abuse by the newly elected Bolsonaro — whose online presence has been controversial to say the least — and his supporters. Four years later, the stakes are even higher. 

This time, Bolsonaro has struggled to break out of a distant second place in polling, and is now under judicial investigation for repeated attempts to discredit the Brazilian electoral system. He has repeatedly suggested that he may refuse to accept the election results if he loses, raising fears of a coup or a sustained destabilization campaign that could severely damage the country’s democratic institutions. If he wins, he has promised to continue to further pursue policies that are devastating the Amazon rainforest and Brazil’s indigenous communities.

As tensions rise ahead of the October 2 first-round election, so has the level of political violence. Researchers have found that the rate of attacks against Brazilian politicians has quadrupled since Bolsonaro took office, with 214 attacks in the first half of 2022 alone. In recent weeks, Bolsonaro’s primary election challenger — former president Lula da Silva (commonly referred to simply as “Lula”) — has had a campaign event bombed and two supporters murdered by followers of Bolsonaro. One of the killers posted frequently in support of Bolsonaro on Twitter and even posted a photo of himself meeting one of Bolsonaro’s sons (who are accused of aiding the disinformation campaigns supporting their father).

Meta has a history of standing by while its platforms are used to promote violence, including bloody ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia and Myanmar. Yet the company claims to have since improved its moderation and enforcement policies. An August 12 statement from Meta on the Brazilian election asserts that “In recent years, we’ve increased our efforts to combat misinformation …” Meta now considers Brazil to be a top priority, but this still doesn’t mean that it is actually enforcing its own rules. 

But for all of the company’s claims of improvement, anti-disinformation activists report that Meta’s platforms are still flooded with both “fake news” and extremist content. A Facebook ad incorrectly claiming that Lula is linked to Brazilian organized crime has been viewed at least 200,000 times. WhatsApp memes call for “[m]ilitary intervention with Bolsonaro in power now!” and declare “[w]e are ready for war!”

Human rights organization Global Witness decided to test Facebook’s moderation in Brazil by submitting 10 advertisements designed to break the platform’s rules, “five containing false election information and five aiming to delegitimise the electoral process.” They did not verify themselves and did not include a “paid for by” disclosure in the ads, both of which are required according to Facebook rules. Nonetheless, Facebook approved all 10 of the ads.

Meta platforms can also be used to dodge some of the restrictions that Brazilian law places on campaigning. Electoral rules in Brazil regulate when candidates are allowed to officially start campaigning, banning any official political advertisements before August 15 of this year. But these rules don’t prevent groups outside of the campaign from paying for ads that support their candidates. Thus, there have been at least 20 instances of Facebook and Instagram approving outside ads for display before the campaign’s legal starting date. Among these advertisements, pro-Bolsonaro content received more than 16 times as many views as pro-Lula content.

The damage that all of these abuses can cause is amplified by Facebook’s explicit policy of allowing lies in political advertisements, a decision that has been criticized by hundreds of the company’s employees. Bolsonaro tried to further weaken these already loose standards by attempting to make it illegal for social media platforms to remove posts for disinformation; the move that was quickly struck down by the Brazilian Supreme Court. The following month, Facebook and Youtube removed a video of him claiming that vaccines cause AIDS.

Lies for Cash

Brazilians have been working overtime since 2018 to find new ways to address this flood of electoral manipulation. Electoral authorities have created a “Counter Disinformation Program,” and campaign laws have been updated in an attempt to outlaw “the dissemination or sharing of facts known to be untrue or seriously decontextualized, damaging the integrity of the electoral process.”

Until Meta’s platform policies change, however, legal attempts to mitigate these issues are unlikely to be effective. For this reason, a coalition of over 90 civil society organizations in Brazil is proposing reforms to combat distortions and fabrications online without infringing on freedom of speech. These include stronger rules against electoral disinformation, greater transparency about platform standards, updated terms of service regarding political violence, and a right to appeal for anyone who has their content removed.

Central to this issue is that platforms like Facebook make money from high user engagement, which attracts advertisers and gives the company personal user data to sell. This means that social media companies have a profit incentive to accept any content that results in high engagement, regardless of its truthfulness or even its legality. Yael Eisenstat, the former head of election integrity at Facebook, agrees: “Facebook profits partly by amplifying lies and selling dangerous targeting tools that allow political operatives to engage in a new level of information warfare.”

With just days left before Brazilians head to the polls to decide the political future of their country, the use of social media by political elites to manipulate elections is again in full swing. Democracies are facing unprecedented threats around the world, and Brazil illustrates the dangerous effects that for-profit social media companies can have on our access to information. Until they are forced to reform, these companies will continue to exchange lies for cash.

Meta is the king of the social media world. Not only is the company’s flagship product, Facebook, the world’s largest social networking platform, but two of its other properties — WhatsApp and Instagram — are also in the top five. With this popularity has come significant controversy, especially regarding the role Meta’s platforms play in disseminating political disinformation and “fake news.”

Lying is hardly a new development in politics, but social media companies have created new opportunities for powerful actors to spread lies at an unprecedented scale and speed. In Brazil, Meta’s platforms were used as tools for nationwide disinformation campaigns that helped far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro win the 2018 presidential election. Facing widespread criticism over this and similar campaigns elsewhere, Meta said it would take decisive action to stem the spread of lies. Yet the evidence so far suggests that disinformation continues to run rampant on its Brazilian platforms. 

This time around, the tidal wave of “fake news” circulating on Meta’s social media platforms is helping to promote Bolsonaro’s Trump-like effort to discredit this Sunday’s presidential election, which polls suggest he will ultimately lose. This new, largely unchecked disinformation campaign could have devastating consequences for Brazil, and for the planet. 

Lies, Damned Lies, and Posts

A national law passed in 2017 made a number of changes to Brazilian electoral law, including a reform that allowed candidates to pay to boost content on social media. While this measure moved forward, another controversial proposal to require social media companies to remove “fake news” and hate speech was vetoed by then (interim) president Michel Temer. In other words, while restrictions on online campaigning were loosened, online disinformation remained unchecked.

When the 2018 election season began, online disinformation campaigns became nearly unavoidable. According to a former data scientist at Facebook, the platform’s enforcement efforts often fell far short of its own guidelines – yet this limited effort still identified and removed “10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the US in the 2018 elections …” Facebook campaigns were only the tip of the iceberg; Meta’s other platforms would pose an even larger problem.

In a scandal that broke after the first round of Brazil’s 2018 elections, it was revealed that wealthy businessmen had illegally funded an operation obtaining millions of phone numbers from Facebook and sending political disinformation to their WhatsApp accounts. The app is widely popular in Brazil as a free alternative to text messaging, and 48 percent of online Brazilians rely on it as a source of news.

The scale of the WhatsApp campaign was enormous. One of the false news stories it promoted — that Bolsonaro’s opponent was sending out “gay kits” to schools in order to indoctrinate children into homosexuality — had a far-reaching impact in Brazil, much of which remains deeply conservative on social issues. This blatantly fake story was seen by 74 percent of voters, and 56 percent of those who saw it say they believed it. According to the same survey, a shocking 93 percent of Bolsonaro voters reported that they had seen stories (falsely) claiming that ballot boxes were rigged. An analysis of viral WhatsApp messages sent during the campaign found that messages spread by right-wing sources were 14 times as likely to contain verifiably false information as those from left-wing sources.

Democracy on the Brink

The sheer size of the WhatsApp operation during the presidential campaign provoked serious concerns about social media abuse by the newly elected Bolsonaro — whose online presence has been controversial to say the least — and his supporters. Four years later, the stakes are even higher. 

This time, Bolsonaro has struggled to break out of a distant second place in polling, and is now under judicial investigation for repeated attempts to discredit the Brazilian electoral system. He has repeatedly suggested that he may refuse to accept the election results if he loses, raising fears of a coup or a sustained destabilization campaign that could severely damage the country’s democratic institutions. If he wins, he has promised to continue to further pursue policies that are devastating the Amazon rainforest and Brazil’s indigenous communities.

As tensions rise ahead of the October 2 first-round election, so has the level of political violence. Researchers have found that the rate of attacks against Brazilian politicians has quadrupled since Bolsonaro took office, with 214 attacks in the first half of 2022 alone. In recent weeks, Bolsonaro’s primary election challenger — former president Lula da Silva (commonly referred to simply as “Lula”) — has had a campaign event bombed and two supporters murdered by followers of Bolsonaro. One of the killers posted frequently in support of Bolsonaro on Twitter and even posted a photo of himself meeting one of Bolsonaro’s sons (who are accused of aiding the disinformation campaigns supporting their father).

Meta has a history of standing by while its platforms are used to promote violence, including bloody ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia and Myanmar. Yet the company claims to have since improved its moderation and enforcement policies. An August 12 statement from Meta on the Brazilian election asserts that “In recent years, we’ve increased our efforts to combat misinformation …” Meta now considers Brazil to be a top priority, but this still doesn’t mean that it is actually enforcing its own rules. 

But for all of the company’s claims of improvement, anti-disinformation activists report that Meta’s platforms are still flooded with both “fake news” and extremist content. A Facebook ad incorrectly claiming that Lula is linked to Brazilian organized crime has been viewed at least 200,000 times. WhatsApp memes call for “[m]ilitary intervention with Bolsonaro in power now!” and declare “[w]e are ready for war!”

Human rights organization Global Witness decided to test Facebook’s moderation in Brazil by submitting 10 advertisements designed to break the platform’s rules, “five containing false election information and five aiming to delegitimise the electoral process.” They did not verify themselves and did not include a “paid for by” disclosure in the ads, both of which are required according to Facebook rules. Nonetheless, Facebook approved all 10 of the ads.

Meta platforms can also be used to dodge some of the restrictions that Brazilian law places on campaigning. Electoral rules in Brazil regulate when candidates are allowed to officially start campaigning, banning any official political advertisements before August 15 of this year. But these rules don’t prevent groups outside of the campaign from paying for ads that support their candidates. Thus, there have been at least 20 instances of Facebook and Instagram approving outside ads for display before the campaign’s legal starting date. Among these advertisements, pro-Bolsonaro content received more than 16 times as many views as pro-Lula content.

The damage that all of these abuses can cause is amplified by Facebook’s explicit policy of allowing lies in political advertisements, a decision that has been criticized by hundreds of the company’s employees. Bolsonaro tried to further weaken these already loose standards by attempting to make it illegal for social media platforms to remove posts for disinformation; the move that was quickly struck down by the Brazilian Supreme Court. The following month, Facebook and Youtube removed a video of him claiming that vaccines cause AIDS.

Lies for Cash

Brazilians have been working overtime since 2018 to find new ways to address this flood of electoral manipulation. Electoral authorities have created a “Counter Disinformation Program,” and campaign laws have been updated in an attempt to outlaw “the dissemination or sharing of facts known to be untrue or seriously decontextualized, damaging the integrity of the electoral process.”

Until Meta’s platform policies change, however, legal attempts to mitigate these issues are unlikely to be effective. For this reason, a coalition of over 90 civil society organizations in Brazil is proposing reforms to combat distortions and fabrications online without infringing on freedom of speech. These include stronger rules against electoral disinformation, greater transparency about platform standards, updated terms of service regarding political violence, and a right to appeal for anyone who has their content removed.

Central to this issue is that platforms like Facebook make money from high user engagement, which attracts advertisers and gives the company personal user data to sell. This means that social media companies have a profit incentive to accept any content that results in high engagement, regardless of its truthfulness or even its legality. Yael Eisenstat, the former head of election integrity at Facebook, agrees: “Facebook profits partly by amplifying lies and selling dangerous targeting tools that allow political operatives to engage in a new level of information warfare.”

With just days left before Brazilians head to the polls to decide the political future of their country, the use of social media by political elites to manipulate elections is again in full swing. Democracies are facing unprecedented threats around the world, and Brazil illustrates the dangerous effects that for-profit social media companies can have on our access to information. Until they are forced to reform, these companies will continue to exchange lies for cash.

Want to search in the archives?

¿Quieres buscar en los archivos?

Click Here Haga clic aquí