Doing math in Mexico

[2006 election]

While Mexicans take to the streets over the presidential vote, democracy's fairweather friends are standing silent.

by James K Galbraith, July 17, 2006


The election was stolen. It's not in doubt. Colin Powell admits it. The National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute both admit it. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana - a Republican - was emphatic: there had been "a concerted and forceful program of election-day fraud and abuse"; he "had heard" of employers telling their workers how to vote; yet he had also seen the fire of the resisting young, "not prepared to be intimidated".


In Washington, Zbigniew Brzezinski has demanded that the results be set aside and a new vote taken, under the eye - no less - of the United Nations. In The New York Times, Steven Lee Myers decried "the use of government resources on behalf of loyal candidates and the state's control over the media" - factors, he said, were akin to practices in "Putin's Russia".

_I wrote those words two years ago, for Salon. They referred, of course, to the election in the Ukraine, where the presidential candidate favoured by the powerful neighbouring state (Russia) had claimed a tainted victory in a tight race. The thunder from America, citadel of democracy, was overwhelming. Nothing mattered more than to see the vote annulled, a new election held. The subsequent installation of Viktor Yuschenko as President of Ukraine was widely celebrated as a great triumph for democracy.

But that, of course, was in another country. Two weeks have now passed since the presidential vote in Mexico, pitting Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the party for a Democratic Revolution (PRD) against Felipe Calderón of the ruling National Action party (PAN). The candidate who trailed, López Obrador, has explicitly charged that the count was cooked. He has challenged the result in court. No final resolution is due before September.

Yet the stalwarts of democracy outside Mexico are silent. Bush has congratulated Calderón, not waiting for the court to rule. Reuters and Bloomberg echo the confidence of the elites that Calderón will win in court - never mind whether he won at the polls. When The New York Times is heard from, the headlines tell us of the "leftist claims" about the occurrence of fraud, while Calderón is described as "presidential." The Times never doubted that fraud did occur in Ukraine. In Mexico on the other hand, it seemingly renounces any duty to examine the facts on the ground.

Here's one difference between the two situations. In Ukraine, it was extremely hard to learn exactly what the evidence of fraudulence actually was. In Mexico, it is extremely easy. That is because the Mexican electoral authority, known as IFE, posted the ongoing count on its website in real time, an initiative called PREP. Independent scholars kept a record of PREP as the night progressed. A statistical analysis of that record does not, of course, constitute proof. But it brings to mind Henry David Thoreau's remark that circumstantial evidence can be very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.

To begin with, a simple matter. According to an article by Roberto González Amador in La Jornada, the vote totals don't match the percentages reported. Given the just over 15m votes Calderón was said to have earned, the percentage reported for him, 35.89%, could only be obtained by including invalid ballots in the total reported. If, on the other hand, one takes the overall vote total and the percentage reported for Calderón as correct, then his total vote must have been substantially less than was reported.

The same is true for AMLO and the other candidates, and there is a total shortfall of over a million votes between what can be justified by the official percentages of the valid votes, and the sum of votes reported. The discrepancy proves nothing, but even if it is only a simple error, it certainly seems to cast doubt over the competence of the count.

Let's turn to the harder stuff. An analysis by the physicist Luis Mochán of UNAM based on the realtime evolution of the vote count and the distribution of vote totals by polling place can be found here, and in greater detail in Spanish, here. It's not easy reading, but is immensely worthwhile. It's possible that Mochán's work inaugurates a new era in realtime checking for vote fraud, made possible by the simplicity of Mexico's first-past-the-post direct vote and the rich electoral data sets that can be made instantly available. Call it the age of transparency, in collision with an oligarchy of thugs.

Mochán's work calls attention to at least four important anomalies in the count.

1. Calderón's percentage lead in the count started at around seven percentage points, and diminished steadily in percentage terms through the first part of the count. This corresponded to a remarkably constant absolute differential between Calderón and AMLO as the count progressed. Is this normal? The count depended on the arrival of the boxes; if this were absolutely random then the proportions should have held roughly constant while absolute differentials widened, as actually happened to the differential between Calderón and the third major candidate, Madrazo of the PRI, for most of the evening. Why did the Calderón-AMLO differential follow a different rule?

2. The PREP results went on view only after the first 10,000 boxes had been processed. If those first 10,000 boxes resembled what came later, then extrapolating backward should produce a line intersecting the origin - each candidate should have started with zero votes. For Calderón this is the case, but for AMLO it is not: the AMLO intercept is actually at minus 126,000 votes. Thus, the first 10,000 boxes were markedly different from those that followed. How?

3. There are gross anomalies in the number of votes counted per five-minute interval as the count finishes. Over the course of the evening, the pattern of vote counts set a normal range for this variable. As the last boxes came in, however, it was radically violated, with many more votes piled in, per interval, than was normal before. Moreover, toward the very end, PREP reset the box count, which regressed from 127,936 at 13.17 on July 3 to 127,713 at 13.50, meaning that records for 223 boxes disappeared. 33 minutes had by then passed with no updates. When they resumed, there were updates with absurd results: more than 6000 votes per box at 13:57, and then updates with large negative votes per box at 13:57 and 14:03.

4. From a statistical point of view, the distribution across boxes of votes earned by each candidate should be smooth. For Madrazo it is. But for Calderón and AMLO it isn't. In Calderón's case, the distribution appears to be shifted out, with the shift localized among the last 40,000 boxes counted. In the case of AMLO, the distribution tails off abruptly from its peak. It is in the difference between the slightly fat distribution for Calderón and the shaved distribution for AMLO that the difference in the final outcome is to be found. A graph of the differences in Calderón and AMLO's votes per box, which ought to follow a normal curve, does not. Over a certain range, Calderón's margins appear abnormally large.

Professor Mochán does not claim to explain these anomalies. More time and closer investigation remain necessary. But he does conclude that it "is reasonable to suspect that there could have been a manipulation of the results reported by the PREP." It is true that the PREP is not an official count - that was done at the district offices, with equally serious anomalies alleged. But PREP reported the box-by-box results as they flowed in-and as such it constitutes a vital instrument for the detection of patterns of manipulation and fraud.

Let me go further than Mochán. The evidence he assembles is consistent with the following possibilities:

1. That Felipe Calderón started the night with an advantage in total votes, a gift from the authorities.

2. That as the count progressed this advantage was maintained by misreporting of the actual results. This enabled Calderón to claim that he had led through the entire process - an argument greatly repeated but spurious in any case because it is only the final count that matters.

3. That toward the end of the count, further adjustments were made to support the appearance of a victory by Calderón.

Add these elements together, and there is no reason to accept the almost universal view that the election was close. AMLO might have won by a mile.

If you want sound and colour, there's plenty of that too: actual tally sheets showing that votes counted for AMLO were reduced, taped conspiratorial telephone conversations, videotapes that may or may not show guilty behaviour; the endorsement of Calderón by Fox; the inclusion of PAN themes in corporate advertising. As a Mexican correspondent writes, "the fraud is a p-r-o-c-e-s-s." In late news, La Jornada on July 16 charges that 40% of the vote packets have been illegally reopened by the IFE since the election. This amounts to a pre-emptive strike against the credibility of any recount. The charges, if true, are tantamount to proof of fraud, evidence prima facie that AMLO won the election.

Is it time to move on? The numbers suggest otherwise. By demonstrating the possibility of detecting fraud before the results of an election are officially decided, they also inaugurate a new phase in the struggle for the recognition of a democratic vote. The Mexican people, who marched through their capital today, appear determined to carry that struggle forward until justice is won. Unlike the so-called Democratic Party in the United States six years back, Andres Manuel López Obrador appears, for now, determined not to compromise with fraud.

And for those of us outside Mexico, we must decide where we stand: with democracy ... or quietly on the sidelines?

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