The failure of the Organization of American States (OAS) to explain false claims of fraud it made during the Bolivian elections in 2019 – allegations that played a key role in the military ouster of President Evo Morales – continues to fuel doubts about its ability to monitor elections fairly and objectively.
Shortly after Bolivian electoral authorities announced preliminary first-round results showing that Morales had surpassed the 10 percentage point margin of victory necessary to avoid a runoff, an OAS electoral observation mission released a statement expressing “deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in trend.” It said the updated vote count “drastically modifies the fate of the election and generates a loss of confidence in the electoral process.” An audit report later published by the OAS claimed to uncover evidence of “a massive and unexplainable surge in the final 5 percent of the vote count” without which Morales would not have crossed the 10 percent margin.
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro publicly supported the Bolivian Army’s decision, after three weeks of civil protests, to coerce Morales and much of his government into resigning, paving the way for a caretaker government of questionable legitimacy. Almagro stated that “Yes, there was a coup d’état in Bolivia; it occurred on the 20th of October when electoral fraud was committed.” He said, “The Army must act in accordance with its mandate. No one has exceeded their power so far.”
The OAS has not responded to requests for information about its analysis. Academic and media studies, however, have shown that the OAS analysis was marred by incorrect methods, coding errors, and misrepresentation of results. In a peer-reviewed paper forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, Nicolás Idrobo, Dorothy Kronick, and Francisco Rodríguez (a co-author of this post) show that, rather than “inexplicable” as the OAS alleged, the final results were predictable. They identified mistakes that, if corrected, would have erased the alleged “surge in the final 5 percent of the vote count.”
The “change in trend” the OAS claimed to have identified was essentially a matter of votes from certain geographic areas being processed and counted before votes from other areas that were more favorable to Morales. The OAS finding was due to a statistical method that misrepresents data at the “breakpoint” at which fraud is tested for.
When it released its final audit a month after the election, the OAS claimed it confirmed evidence of fraud, but it did not reveal that its calculation excluded the last 4 percent of tallies. These votes were presumably the most likely to be tampered with, but they were among the less pro-Morales. If included, there is no “break in trend” as alleged.
Research by David Rosnick of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows that a coding error caused the OAS to incorrectly sort time stamps by alphabetical instead of chronological order. An earlier CEPR study showed that the OAS audit withheld information from its comparison of physical vote tallies with those in the online database that did not support the allegations of fraud.
These mistakes would have likely been identified rapidly by experts had the OAS followed basic standards of transparency. The OAS’s lead researcher has acknowledged at least some of these mistakes, but the flawed analysis remains on the OAS website, and the OAS has not issued a retraction nor amended the sections of the report that present the incorrect results. Mexico and Argentina have tried to discuss the issue within the organization, but Almagro’s office has refused to address the rebuttals.
In March, the U.S. Congress, which provides the majority of the OAS’s budget, passed language in an omnibus spending package that requires the State Department to consult with independent experts and produce a report on the “legitimacy and transparency” of the 2019 Bolivian election within 120 days. The report, due last month, is expected to address the role of the OAS in that election.
OAS technical experts and political leaders’ role in what amounted to a military coup against a democratically elected president has raised questions about their competence and commitment to the democratic values the organization espouses. Errors in coding and calculations may have been merely technical, but political interference cannot be ruled out without a proper investigation. The Secretary General’s explicit support for the removal of Morales was clearly a political decision.
With threats against democratic processes intensifying in many countries, the need for truly independent and neutral observer missions has never been greater. The lack of OAS accountability in Bolivia opens the door for others in the region to levy false allegations of electoral fraud in hopes of receiving international support.