November 10, 2022
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 other posts: part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, part eight, and part nine.
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.
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.