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Bolivia Election Monitoring, 2009

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Bolivia Election Monitoring

January 2009 Constitutional Referendum, December 2009 Voter Registration

The Carter Center was invited by the Plurinational Electoral Body of Bolivia to its country twice in 2009. The first instance was for a limited observation of a referendum on a new constitution. The second visit’s mission was “long term observation of the voting process in Bolivia” and involved a longer, more comprehensive monitoring of the installation of an entirely new voter registration program based off of the constitution. This was done in the lead-up to the national elections on December 6th, in the same year.[1] This voter registration program included biometric technology that records all ten of an individual’s fingerprints, his photograph, and his signature. The mission itself consisted of three distinct parts: direct observation, technical analysis, and legal analysis, with a focus on access to information, transparency, citizen participation, political environment, functioning of registration centers, performance of registration officials, and processing of data.[2] The Bolivian government put the program in place in response to uncertainty among dissidents and the electorate on the whole that the country’s democratic elections really were free and fair. The rest of the electoral process was monitored, but not comprehensively. The main reason that the Center was there was the registration process.

Preceding the mission, The Carter Center operated in Bolivia starting in 2003, working to establish freedom of information legislation, a free and ethical press, and a government staff versed in conflict resolution. Since that time, the Bolivian people have contended with major political issues stemming from Bolivia’s extremely diverse political, economic, and ethnic makeup. Due to this fractionalization, presidents have historically been elected with little popular support. These issues boiled to a head in 2003 when President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned due to an energy fracas involving natural gas exports to the US through Chile. His successor, Carlos Mensa, barely lasted a year before his own resignation.[3] In a 2005 special election, the people elected Evo Morales, a former coca farmer and labor leader. He came to the office of president with 53% of the popular vote, Bolivia’s first ever absolute electoral majority. His party, the Socialist Movement (MAS), won a majority in the legislature. The election brought major changes to Bolivian politics as he focused on issues of ethnic minority rights, redistribution, and energy, though there was a fairly consistent stream of dissent by opponents that resulted in a failed recall election in 2008.[4] By the 2009 election, when the Carter Center began its registration monitoring mission, Bolivia had come a long way from 2003’s fractionalization, but there was still a pervasive attitude that “the credibility of the political system-including the electoral body, the voting register and the traditional parties themselves-was seriously in jeopardy.”[5] With a brand new constitution and electoral law which established the Plurinational Electoral Commission (OEP) as an independent part of the Bolivian government, the main question became whether the new system could inspire confidence and legitimacy in government. The Center asserted that “the success of the elections hinged upon the ability of this new registry to alleviate mutual distrust between various political and regional actors.”[6] As such, the Carter Center was to help provide the program with impartial and comprehensive monitoring.

The Center deployed three two-member teams from the field office in La Paz to observe registration stations in all 19 of Bolivia’s departments, as well as at consulates in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Spain. The team also featured experts in both technical and legal analysis to monitor the data processing centers and the program’s adherence to Bolivia’s laws and international obligations. This team was augmented by support from managers on site and the Center’s main staff in Atlanta.[7]

One of the main difficulties that Center observers noted in registering voters biometrically was logistical. Simply put, the country’s electoral commission (OEP) was attempting to register a target of four million voters, many of whom lived in remote, rural areas, had limited command of Spanish, or even lived abroad. NEC, the company that installed the biometric registration machinery, stated in regards to the difficulty of this task that “Bolivia has a population of about 10 million people of many different cultures, spread over a geographic area of over one million square kilometers.”[8] The technical capacity of the data centers to gather, process, and adequately store biometric information from millions of voters became a serious question. The capacity of these data centers to screen records for duplicate registrations also came into question, as one of Bolivia’s prime electoral issues up to that point had been the accidental or unethical counting of duplicate votes.

The Center also noted several other issues in regards to registration. The Bolivian government ran a resettlement program in rural areas during the election, which created both ethical and logistical dilemmas. The OEP tried to install a cap on expatriate voter registration at six percent of the total, and only lifted the cap a few days before the election. Election materials were also not readily available in any other language than Spanish. While acting in good faith and with overall efficiency, the Center noted that the OEP could have prophylactically headed off many of the issues that came about during the registration process by providing freer access to information to both the Center and the Bolivian people, communicating more clearly and efficiently with the press to disseminate that information, and suspending questionable activities such as resettlement programs during the campaign season.[9] These issues are especially important because the crux of the registration process was the establishment of credibility by election authorities.

Even with the challenges, the Carter Center noted that the OEP’s target of 4 million registered voters was handily exceeded: 5,138,583 people registered and 4.8 million actually voted, a turnout of 94%.[10] The Center noted that, outside of the aforementioned issues, the registration process was largely free from any controversy, violence, or intimidation. All of the actors in question handled the process professionally and graciously and, outside of being limited in its access to the primary data center in La Paz, the Center did not claim to be impeded in any way. Though there were problems, they “did not seem to cause a substantive effect on the quality of the information gathered.”[11] The Center also monitored election day in a limited capacity and made largely the same observations: it was free and fair, and the Center lauded Bolivia’s government and its people for their achievement.

Developments Since Monitoring

Since 2009, Morales and the MAS have remained in power. The economy has grown substantially as Morales has instituted various reforms in line with his party’s agenda, codifying indigenous ethnic rights and turning the country into a regional energy leader. Morales has, however, been quite confrontational, using a rather incendiary form of rhetorical diplomacy.[12] Domestic opponents have criticized him for his policies, arguing that he has centralized government functions in a dangerous fashion and forced through his agenda using “strong-arm tactics.”[13] The New York Times reported that one resident of El Alto claimed “I don’t like that he’s created a monopoly on power; he controls everything.”[14] He ran for an unprecedented third term in 2014, which is barred by Bolivia’s constitution. Morales argued that because the 2005 election was a special election in response to the resignation of the previous president, his first term did not count towards his total of two full constitutional terms.[15] This controversy did not deter voters who handily reelected both him and the Socialist Party in 2014 with 60% of the vote.[16] What is more, the number of registered voters increased to almost 6 million in that year. Morales has even gone so far as to push for a constitutional amendment to abolish the two-term limit, allowing him to run yet again in 2019, though the New York Times reported in February 2016 that a referendum on the issue shot the amendment down by a margin of 51 to 49 percent.[17] Morales stated that he would respect the result.

Contribution of the Carter Center

Helped, in a politically climactic moment, to foster an environment of confidence and legitimacy for Bolivia’s presidential and legislative election registration process.

Helped to “inform and shape the perceptions of Bolivians and international actors in regards to the legitimacy of Bolivia’s voter registration process.”[18]

Offered suggestions to Bolivia’s election authorities on how to improve upon the progress made in 2009 through greater transparency and clarity in process.


[1] “Observation Mission of the Bolivia Voter Registration 2009: Final Report.” The Carter Center. November 23, 2010, 1.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Alpert, Alexandra, Miguel Centellas, and Matthew M. Singer. “The 2009 Presidential and Legislative Elections in Bolivia.” Electoral Studies 29, no. 4 (2010): 757-761.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Observation Mission of the Bolivia Voter Registration 2009: Final Report,” 3.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] NEC Corporation. “Biometric Voter ID Solution: National Electoral Court of Bolivia.” NEC Corporation. 2010.

[9] “Observation Mission of the Bolivia Voter Registration 2009: Final Report,” 8-10.

[10] Alpert, Centellas, and Singer. “The 2009 Presidential and Legislative Elections in Bolivia.”

[11] The Carter Center. “Carter Center Continues Observation of Bolivia’s Biometric Census Registration Process.” The Carter Center. September 17, 2009. http://www.cartercenter.org/news/pr/bolivia_091709.html.

[12] Marsh, Sarah. “Fidel Castro, Evo Morales Discuss “Imperialist Efforts” in Latin America.” Reuters. May 21, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-bolivia-idUSKCN0YD017

[13] Ellerbeck, Alexandra and Benjamin Soloway. “The Limits of Evo Morales’s Identity Politics: Not all of Bolivia’s Indigenous People are Happy with the Country’s first Indigenous President.” Foreign Policy. February 29, 2016. http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/29/the-limits-of-evo-moraless-identity-politics/

[14] Casey, Nicholas. “Bolivian President Concedes Defeat in Term-Limit Referendum.” The New York Times. February 24, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/25/world/americas/bolivian-president-evo-morales-concedes-defeat-in-term-limit-referendum.html?_r=0

[15] Montero, Carlos and Catherine E. Shoichet. “Morales Declares Victory in Bolivian Presidential Vote.” CNN. October 12, 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/12/world/americas/bolivia-elections/

[16] “Bolivia’s Morales Declares Election Victory: Unofficial Results Say South American Nation’s Leftist President has Swept Poll with 59.5 Percent of the Vote.” Al Jazeera. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2014/10/morales-tipped-win-bolivia-election-2014101305614126876.html

[17] Casey. “Bolivian President Concedes Defeat in Term-Limit Referendum.”

[18] “Observation Mission of the Bolivia Voter Registration 2009: Final Report,” 5.