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A detailed new analysis conducted by researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that the OAS election observers’ audit of Bolivia’s 2019 presidential election failed to prove that the official result was fraudulent.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Greg Wilpert: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Bolivia is in the midst of a second presidential election campaign in less than six months, for a do-over election that is scheduled for May 3rd. The election is meant to replace the canceled October 20th presidential election of last year. Back then, Bolivia’s opposition refused to recognize the official results, which gave the incumbent president, Evo Morales, at 10.5 percentage point lead over his nearest challenger, Carlos Mesa, and this would have avoided a runoff election.

The opposition then mobilized and organized many violent protests against Morales, leading to significant upheaval in Bolivia. To calm things down, Morales agreed to let the Organization of American States, the OAS, to conduct an audit of the October 20th election, and to abide by their findings. The OAS report, released on November 10th, claimed that there were serious irregularities in the votes tallying process, and recommended a new election.

In reaction to the OAS report, Bolivia’s military urged Morales to step down. Morales, his vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, and his cabinet, resigned the same day, and Morales fled to into exile, first to Mexico and later to Argentina where he remains at the moment. Since then a far right, and little known member of Bolivia’s legislature, Jeanine Anez, took over the presidency and engaged in a massive wave of repression against Evo Morales’ supporters.

In December, the OAS provided a more detailed analysis of the election in which it doubled down on the claim that there had been fraud. However, two independent analyses of the OAS reports, one conducted by John Curiel and Jack Williams of the MIT Data and Science Lab, and the other by Jake Johnson and David Rosnick at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, found that the OAS audits were deeply flawed and that they do not prove that fraud took place in last year’s election in Bolivia.

Joining me now is one of the researchers who analyzed the OAS report, Jake Johnson. He’s a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. His analysis of the OAS report is titled Observing the Observers: The OAS in the 2019 Bolivian Elections, which was released last week. Thanks for joining us again, Jake.

Jake Johnson: Thanks for having me.

Greg Wilpert: So it bears repeating, the OAS audit of the October 20th election in Bolivia was instrumental in enabling the coup against president, Evo Morales. Before we get into the flaws of the audit, we need to look at what their main claims and findings were. So on what basis do they say that there was fraud? Since it’s a rather complicated issue, focus just on their main arguments.

Jake Johnson: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s complicated. It involves multiple steps here, right? And so I think it’s important to start really with the election itself and the actions in the days right after the election by the Organization of American States, their observation mission themselves. This is before the audit ever took place.

So on election day itself, on October 20th, the Electoral Authority in Bolivia announced preliminary results with about 84% of the vote counted, and the margin between Evo Morales and Carlos Mesa was below 10 percentage point threshold, which would be the barrier for avoiding a second round and just winning the election outright in the first round.

Now, the preliminary count stopped, and that is sort of the beginning, or the initiation, of this entire conflict. So the next day when new numbers were provided, that margin had increased to over 10 percentage points. Enough to win in the first round for Evo Morales. And the OAS almost immediately issued a press release denouncing this drastic and inexplicable change in trend of the vote, that undermined the credibility of the election.

And that really was the moment, and the original sin of the OAS actions in this election. The theory of fraud that this was supporting was that the electoral authority had shut down the vote counting system, again this is just the preliminary vote counting system, and had somehow manipulated the results in order to change the outcome of the election. And that is what was reported across the world in major newspapers and news outlets. Everyone’s just sort of repeating these OAS claims that there had been this drastic and inexplicable trend change.

So that was really the initial claim, and that claim came before any audit had been requested or undertaken, but was the observation mission itself, the day after the election.

Greg Wilpert: And so when they analyze the result, what did they find exactly, in terms of… I know that there are a number of different issues that they raised, for example, that servers hadn’t been used properly or that the… Aside from that vote tallying, the tally sheets had been altered. Talk a little bit more about that.

Jake Johnson: Yeah, exactly. So as this crisis went on and the audit started to take place, there was originally a preliminary audit released November 10th. As you mentioned, this was the day of the coup. The day that Evo was forced to resign. That had some information but we really didn’t get the full picture until December when the final audit came out. And now that repeated these claims around the change in the trend of the vote, but also encompassed additional aspects of the vote counting process. So as you mentioned, the presence of computer servers that were not in the originally planned schematics of the day. Things like the chain of custody over electoral materials as they were being transported from departments and rural areas back to where they were being counted, and various issues in terms of the actual thing.

And the OAS audit was really sort of categorical that there was these issues across the board in all of these different areas. And I think what’s really important is when you’re analyzing an election you have to differentiate between irregularities and fraud, right? Any election, when you look close enough, you’re going to find examples of irregularities, right? So procedural problems not followed perfectly well, maybe because of lack of training, et cetera. But the real question, and the question that the audit was attempting to answer was, did these issues actually rise to the level of impacting the results of the election, and were they actually an intentional effort to do so?

Greg Wilpert: Now let’s turn to the flaws in the OAS audit itself. What did you find, and why does it fail to prove that fraud actually took place in the October 20th election?

Jake Johnson: Yeah, exactly. So I think here’s where it’s really important to differentiate between these initial claims right after the election and then this entire picture that we’ve got with the audit in the end, right? And so I think, for us, it was very clear. The OAS put this press release out on October 21st saying there was an inexplicable change in the trend of the vote.

Looking at the publicly available data, and the electoral authority did make data available in three minute updates throughout this period, so you could see how the vote was progressing as it was going. And when we looked at that, it was quite clear that the votes that were remaining to be counted when the preliminary result system was stopped with 84% of the vote counted, those outstanding votes came from areas that had already expressed a clear preference for Morales. And so it was not surprising in the least that as those remaining votes were counted, the margin between the two candidates increased. And now this was just abundantly clear in the publicly available data, and really just shows that the assertion from the OAS really from the day after the election, was clearly false.

Greg Wilpert: And so you mentioned also that there was an issue with proof… That there’s no direct connection necessarily between the kind of irregularities or mistakes that were made, and the fraud. Give us some examples of how they’re jumping, basically, from these irregularities to the claim of fraud.

Jake Johnson: Yeah, exactly. So I mean, I think here there’s been a lot of focus on the computer systems involved with this preliminary results system. The trap, as it’s referred to. And so the question then is, “Okay, if they didn’t follow the security procedures as designed, A, why not? But B, did that actually impact the results?”

Now, if you say that there was a drastic trend change, one might think that that means that the computer problems did impact the results. But in fact, the OAS never presented any information or any evidence whatsoever that there was any change to the actual results due to these procedural problems. I think that’s a really key point.

I mean, the OAS, as a neutral multilateral organization made up of the hemispheric countries themselves, really has to have an unimpeachable credibility here, right? They have to be operating in extremely neutral and unbiased manner. And I think what’s quite clear is that that was just not the case at all, with very damaging implications for Bolivian democracy, and I think moving forward for democracy across the hemisphere, if the OAS does not have the credibility to operate as a neutral election observer in other countries as well.

Greg Wilpert: Now has there been a reaction from the OAS itself to your analysis, or to the MIT analysis which looked more at the statistical issues, and have they at all responded to these criticisms of their reports or their audits?

Jake Johnson: Yeah, so the OAS for months now has been extremely resistant to any sort of debate or discussion around these issues. In fact, the Mexican government, their representative to the Organization of American States, in fact, invited myself and the Center for Economic and Policy Research to present at the OAS Permanent Council in December when the OAS presented their own findings. The Permanent Council prevented that from happening, despite procedurally Mexico being allowed to grant their time to us.

Journalists, members of Congress, people who’ve continued to ask questions of the OAS, have failed to receive a response. More recently, they did issue a partial response to the work of Curiel and Williams from the MIT Elections Lab, but interestingly enough they didn’t actually deal with the specifics of their analysis, but rather just repeated some of the analysis from their final audit report itself. And as we were documented in his last report that you mentioned, Observing the Observers, there were significant flaws in that final report.
So one thing that the OAS has said is that the actual trend change was over the last 5% of the vote. That there was this rupture at 95%, and the votes on one side of 95% look very different from the votes on the other side of 95%. And this has been repeated. It was repeated in their response in the Washington Post.

Now when you look at the actual OAS audit itself, while we don’t have their full data series, they did include a data extract in the report. And when you look at that, it actually directly contradicts their claim. In fact, Morales’ margin actually decreases in the last 5% of the vote, as compared to the 5% directly before it. So even based on their own data, right? Even based on their own findings, they’re simply just misrepresenting what exists in their own audit.

Greg Wilpert: Now, what about players in Bolivia itself, such as, well, the electoral authorities or also the government, or other election observers from the UN or Europe? I don’t know if they were participating, but what impact, if any, have these critiques of the OAS report had in Bolivia itself?

Jake Johnson: Well certainly there’s been a strong reaction from the Bolivian government, extremely critical of anyone raising questions around this. And I think that’s because the issue of electoral fraud has been used to justify this non-democratic usurpation of power and the repression and persecution that we’ve seen afterwards.

One reason why I think this is so critically important is today in Bolivia you’ve got dozens of former electoral officials, former government officials, who are being persecuted for the crime of electoral fraud. And the prosecutors have openly said that the basis of this investigation, this case, is the OAS report itself. But that report is deeply, deeply flawed, and that has significant impacts in terms of what we can expect in terms of the judicial process going forward, and the human rights of these people who are being persecuted by this non-democratic government.

Greg Wilpert: Now finally, how does the OAS analysis in Bolivia compare to other election analyses that the OAS has conducted? I’m particularly thinking about the 2010 election in Haiti which you have also looked at. What does it say about the reliability of OAS election observers, more generally?

Jake Johnson: Yeah, it’s a critically important question, right? As I mentioned earlier, this has implications not just in Bolivia, but for the entire hemisphere in terms of having a neutral organization that can actually be called upon to provide an independent opinion on these elections, right?

So when you look at the OAS history, this is not a new thing, this is a repeated pattern. We saw it in 2010 in Haiti when there was a deeply problematic election, and rather than redoing that election where there was almost a quarter of the vote never simply counted because of election day problems, massive problems. This was held right after the earthquake with more than a million people still displaced. And the OAS had a special audit mission that went to Haiti and actually recommended overturning the results of the election, replacing the third place candidate with the second place candidate, and moving to a runoff on this thing, without any statistical inference or analysis that would actually lead that, or without any recount of the votes. And so we’ve seen this sort of political intervention under the guise of election monitoring, time and again from the OAS.

So one more recent example of this sort of activity by the OAS was the 2017 election in Honduras, which on the face of it sort of looked and involved some similar issues as this Bolivia election, in terms of a vote counting system being shut down for a period of time, and when it come back on there being this apparent change in the trend. Now, we looked in-depth at that 2017 election, and one of the big differences with Bolivia was that even within small geographic areas, so a small town where you would not expect to see any differences between voting time of the day or anything like that, there was this big change in the trend. And we saw a very different thing happen in Bolivia, which as I mentioned earlier, was a change that was explainable by just geographic voting patterns, right?

And so in 2017 in Honduras, the OAS did raise issues with this change in trend, but it was not followed through with. The US quickly recognized the results of the election and really nothing happened, and the president resulting from that remains the president recognized by the OAS today. And you can contrast that with what happened in Bolivia, but I think the key difference here is, when we were looking at this again, we saw that it was an entirely different dynamic in terms of this change in the trend.

In fact, I directly pointed this out to somebody inside the OAS on October 22nd, just a day after their press release, saying, “Hey, this is not the same situation as Honduras 2017.” And their response to me was quite telling. It was simple. It said, “We know.” And to us, that was quite clear. They knew that this wasn’t a problem. They knew that there wasn’t an inexplicable change in the trend, and yet they repeated it anyway. And it’s been the repetition of that falsehood for months and months and months, and then the justification of it through this grossly misleading final audit, that really just shows how deeply compromised the OAS has been in the situation in Bolivia most recently.

Greg Wilpert: Well, we’re going to leave it there for now, but of course we’re going see what else is going to come out of this analysis. Hopefully it’s going to lead to some real implications and changes in the way the OAS conducts its election observers.
I was speaking to Jake Johnson, senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and co-author of the study, Observing the Observers: The OAS in the 2019 Bolivian Elections. Thanks again, Jake, for having joined us today.

Jake Johnson: Thanks for having me. Always a pleasure.

Greg Wilpert: And thank you for joining the Real News Network.

Studio: Will Arenas, Bababtunde Ogunfolaju
Production: Genevieve Montinar
Post-Production: Oscar León

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Jake Johnston is a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is the lead author for CEPR’s Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch blog and has authored papers on Haiti concerning the ongoing cholera epidemic, aid accountability and transparency and the U.S. foreign aid system.