Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

If Iowa Was Bolivia, the US Would Have Already Intervened

We're still waiting for the full results of the Iowa caucus. In Bolivia, the United States backed a violent coup against Evo Morales for even less.

Local resident Wallace Mazon holds a sign reading "Abolish the Iowa Caucus" outside the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters February 4, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Last October, Bolivia held a presidential election that pitted incumbent Evo Morales against former president Carlos Mesa. Morales, a socialist that had been in power since 2006, was popular and successful, although his reelection bid was marred by a contentious decision to scrap presidential term limits. Many in the opposition had promised they wouldn’t recognize the results if Morales won.

On election day, as tallies trickled in and the election commission reported results from the unofficial “quick count,” Mesa preemptively declared victory, claiming that he had forced a second round of voting. (Presidential candidates in Bolivia must capture 50 percent of the vote, or must receive at least 40 percent of the vote and lead the second-place candidate by at least ten percentage points, in order to win outright.) Controversially, the election commission then stopped reporting voting tallies for the night. The outcome was up in the air.

Sound familiar?

Along with the suspension of results, both the Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa and the presidential election in Bolivia faced geographic challenges (there were more than 1,600 precincts in Iowa and 5,300 in Bolivia, many of them rural) as well as technological hurdles (using smartphone apps to record results requires technical familiarity and internet access). Security concerns in each election caused administrative delays, although in Bolivia the delay was briefer, and the official count — entirely separate from the quick count and tabulated in person — was not affected by the suspension.

One thing, however, is entirely different: Morales was overthrown in a violent coup, with the full backing of the United States. The worst that could happen in Iowa is the state losing its first-in-the-nation status — and even that’s unlikely.

In Bolivia, the electoral authorities restarted their quick count the day after the election, showing Morales’s lead increasing to over ten percentage points. The jump was in line with the previous trends in results, but the Organization of American States (OAS), which was observing the contest, criticized the “drastic” change-in-trend, implying that fraud had taken place. Even though Morales, the outright victor based on the official count, agreed to a second-round election, he was eventually forced out of office at the behest of the military.

The United States played a significant role in legitimizing the putsch. While the OAS has still failed to provide evidence of fraud, US politicians have congratulated the OAS on its work and quickly normalized relations with the de facto government. Led by Jeanine Áñez, the new government has repressed those associated with Morales and his party in the run-up to new elections.

It’s clear that US elites have double standards for elections based on where they take place and who is winning. If the country is Venezuela or Haiti or Bolivia, and undesirable candidates are leading, the United States can throw out the results or declare whoever they want as president with little justification. If a US ally steals an election, as happened in 2017 in Honduras, the “winner” can stay the winner.

And how about the United States itself, a country that bills itself as a champion of democracy abroad? Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and undemocratic rules are now common elements of the electoral landscape. Overturning an election result, which happened in Florida in 2000, is not unheard of. In 2016, the candidate who came in second in the popular vote was inaugurated president. And while these problems are often to the detriment of Democrats, Democratic elites don’t seem to be too invested in solving them, even for their own nominating process (recent energy has been focused on stopping supposed Russian interference in elections, for example).

The ongoing Iowa caucus debacle illustrates quite a few things: the corruption and waste in the Democratic Party, the hubris around voting systems and security, and the backwardness of the US presidential nominating process. But perhaps above all it shows how voting is selectively weaponized by US elites: against left-wing candidates, against poor and working-class voters.

In Iowa, party leaders refuse to jettison a system that performed abominably and gave center stage to an undeserving, self-declared winner. Yet in Bolivia and other targets of imperialism, US elites are happy to seize on electoral hiccups — and use them to install more favorable, pro-US governments whole cloth.