‘Deeply Flawed’ Conclusions
“Bolivia dismissed its October elections as fraudulent. Our research found no reason to suspect fraud,” reads a Thursday headline in the Washington Post’s analysis section. Penned by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Election Data and Science Lab researchers John Curiel and Jack R. Williams, the piece based on their study closely examines data from the October 20 Bolivian election and methods used by the Organization of American States (OAS) to determine the vote count had been fraudulent.
“There is not any statistical evidence of fraud that we can find - the trends in the preliminary count, the lack of any big jump in support for Morales after the halt, and the size of Morales’s margin all appear legitimate,” the duo concluded. “All in all, the OAS’s statistical analysis and conclusions would appear deeply flawed.”
According to the researchers, the OAS’ conclusion relies on an undemonstrated assumption: that actual voting results are accurately reflected by unofficial counts and by reported voter preferences, and that deviation between these heavily points to voter fraud by the Bolivian government once official counting was resumed the day after election day. La Paz had previously promised to count four-fifths of preliminary votes on election night and count the rest the next day, but when Morales’ standing began to improve after the resumption of counting, the OAS cried foul.
“Our results were straightforward. There does not seem to be a statistically significant difference in the margin before and after the halt of the preliminary vote,” Curiel and Williams wrote. “Instead, it is highly likely that Morales surpassed the 10-percentage-point margin in the first round.”
The researchers ran 1,000 simulations to see if the difference between votes for Morales and his closest competitor, Carlos Masa, could be predicted. “In our simulations, we found that Morales could expect at least a 10.49 point lead over his closest competitor, above the necessary 10-percentage-point threshold necessary to win outright. Again, this suggests that any increase in Morales’s margin after the stop can be explained entirely by the votes already counted.”
The study was reprinted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which noted in a disclosure that it “contracted with the authors to see if the numerical and statistical results of CEPR’s November 2019 study could be independently verified. Any analysis and interpretation of findings in this report express the sole views of the authors, researchers at MIT Election Data and Science Lab.”
“The OAS greatly misled the media and the public about what happened in Bolivia’s elections, and helped to foster a great deal of mistrust in the electoral process and the results,” economist and CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot said in a Thursday statement about the MIT report. “The OAS needs to explain why it made these statements and why anyone should trust it when it comes to elections.”
Parallel Findings Prior to Coup Ignored
However, at the time of the crisis, Washington Post editors seemed uninterested in CEPR’s analysis, deferring instead to the OAS, whose faults CEPR had already seen through even before Morales was ousted.
The day after the OAS statement and two days after the election, Weisbrot called on the body to retract its “irresponsible” statement on the election.
“The OAS statement implies that there is something wrong with the vote count in Bolivia because later-reporting voting centers showed a different margin than earlier ones,” Weisbrot said. “But it provides absolutely no evidence - no statistics, numbers, or facts of any kind - to support this idea. And in fact, a preliminary analysis of the voting data at all of the more than 34,000 voting tables - which is all publicly available and can be downloaded by anyone - shows no evidence of irregularity.”
“This kind of change in voting results, due to later-reporting areas being politically or demographically different than earlier ones, is quite common in election returns - as anyone who has watched election returns come in on CNN in the United States knows,” Weisbrot continued. “That is why it is wrong to draw conclusions from a change in the voting pattern without any statistical analysis or even looking closely at the data.”
“As this narrative gets repeated in the media, it will take on a life of its own, and will be difficult to correct, even as more people look at the data, or produce statistical analysis,” he warned.
CEPR’s formal report was published on November 8, titled, “No Evidence That Bolivian Election Results Were Affected by Irregularities or Fraud, Statistical Analysis Shows.” Two days later, opposition forces, urged on by supportive western powers including the United States, forced Morales from office, and the opposition and began a violent and bloody purge against the Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP), Morales’ indigenous-working class umbrella party.
Newspaper Beat Coup Drums During Crisis
As Weisbrot predicted, the media did perpetuate this narrative - and the Washington Post played a key role in building momentum for Morales’ ouster.
On October 14, six days before the election, the Post ran a story titled “How Evo Morales running again - and again - undermines Bolivia’s democracy,” which warned that “depending on how the election goes,” Morales’ next term “could place democracy itself at risk in the Andean country.”
“In a tight race, international scrutiny and a strong, unified response to any electoral irregularities could be what allows Bolivians to salvage their democracy from the brink,” the opinion piece warns.
.@washingtonpost now reports fraud allegations in Morales' October 2019 reelection had no basis - but its editorial board wasted no effort demonizing @evoespueblo & claiming he was "undermining democracy" in #Bolivia in the crucial weeks between the election & coup. pic.twitter.com/sDuEO2LQbT— Morgan Artyukhina (@LavenderNRed) February 27, 2020
However, four days after the election, on October 24, the Washington Post’s editorial board made its official voice known, declaring that “There’s still time for Bolivia’s president to right the path to democracy.” The article justifies its position using the OAS La Paz observer statement from October 21 and a similar one by the US State Department, which was adamantly pro-coup.
Then on November 10, the coup came, and Morales was forced to resign and flee the country. After pro-opposition police forces and far-right militias acted to block MAS senators from attending a key Senate session on November 12, the highest-ranking opposition senator, Jeanine Añez, declared herself the country’s interim president. Añez moved quickly to prepare de facto martial law, and the army and police massacred dozens of Morales supporters who rallied against the seizure of power.
The Washington Post, meanwhile, built a bulwark of pro-coup support for its readers in the nation’s capital and around the world. On November 11, during the interregnum, the Post’s editorial board once again made its voice heard: “Bolivia is in danger of slipping into anarchy. It’s Evo Morales’s fault.”
“Mr. Morales, who had grown increasingly autocratic in nearly 14 years in office, insisted on running for a fourth term even after he lost a national referendum on whether he could seek it. The electoral tribunal, which he controls, then moved to falsify the results of the Oct. 20 vote so as to hand him a first-round victory,” the paper’s editors wrote, stating as fact what had previously been merely warned to be suspected. “The result was predictable: Angry Bolivians took to the streets all over the country. They had been demonstrating for weeks when, on Sunday, an audit released by the Organization of American States reported massive irregularities in the vote count and called for a fresh election.”
Two days later, the day after Añez seized power, the Post ran another story by the title “It’s not just a ‘coup’: Bolivia’s democracy is in meltdown.” Then on the 15th came the laconically titled piece, “The Bolivian ‘coup’ that wasn’t.” While the two stories quibble over what to call the opposition’s seizure of power, the underlying point is the same: Morales tried to steal the election and went against world opinion and domestic popular will by clinging to power.
With the publication of Curiel’s and Williams’ findings, the Post has helped to unring the bell it shook so hard during the election crisis. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the paper helped provide ideological cover for the ouster of yet another democratically elected leader in a Third World nation by uncritically accepting and repeating the US State Department’s positions and those of international bodies like the OAS that help forward its policies.