Stolen Election in Iran? An Inside View of Vote Fraud

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Although not
having been present at the recent presidential elections in Iran
and thus not able to state on the basis of personal observation
whether there was or wasn't fraud committed, I was struck by the
familiar refrain of some of the arguments by those in the Western
media who seem to believe that the election must have been stolen
by the incumbent. After observing elections for over ten years in
the former communist world — from the Balkans to the Baltics, and
from Central-Asia to the Caucasus — one starts to recognize certain
recurring arguments in the analysis and assessment of an election.

For instance,
in the country where an election is taking place, a particularly
predictable ploy for an election official to use in some poor, forgotten
village where no one seems to bother to show up for the vote, is
that "everyone is working in the fields." Never mind that
you saw a normal level of human movement on the village streets
on your way up to the polling station but no sign of activity in
any field whatsoever. You are assured that the real mass of enthusiastic
voters will show up just after you will have left for the next apathetic

Western arguments
making TV audiences or newspaper readers believe the opposite of
what was happening in an election in general sound more plausible,
but are often no less deceptive. One typical and recurring argument
appeared in various commentaries on the recent election in Iran.

Much was made
of the fact that millions of paper ballots had been counted within
just a few hours. "Not possible," according to some pundits,
and a clear sign of blatant vote rigging. Surely such a huge number
of pieces of paper cannot be sorted and counted within such a short
time! The authorities must have been making the results up before
the counting had finished, was the seemingly logical conclusion.

This is not
necessarily so. In fact, results that take one or more days to come
out are to be treated with far more caution. It raises the suspicion
that some backroom haggling had been going on, where one candidate
needed some time to convince the other — either by the sweet lure
of money, or the menacing spectre of the bullet — to see things
his way. In the properly run elections I observed, the count was
often swift and accurate. To illustrate this, a simple bit of arithmetic
may suffice.

In my experience
an average polling station has anywhere from less than one thousand
to 3000 registered voters; let's take the figure of 2000 for this
exercise. An election commission consists typically of some five
people; again, an average. In Iran, there were four candidates on
the ballot and the reported turnout was around 85%. Thus, assuming
that precincts in Iran did not have a meaningfully higher number
of registered voters than 2000, some 1700 ballots needed counting.
(To be precise, all ballots need to be counted, including the unused
and invalid ones, but those are obviously quicker to process than
used ones). This comes to 340 ballots per commission member.

Let's give
the election officials one hour to sort the ballots, one hour to
count them, and one hour to fill out the various electoral protocols
(and count the unused and invalid ballots), so that results can
be in within three hours after the closing of the poll. This requires
each commission member to sort a little less than 6 pieces of paper
per minute, not a particularly cumbersome job, particularly given
that there were only four candidates and thus only four different
piles on which to put a particular ballot. Now that the ballots
are sorted, each member has the same ten seconds per ballot for
the count – not a Herculean task either. In fact, a sea of time
– enough to allow for a double-check and still make it within the

Given the enthusiastic
Western reports of the role played by modern communication technology
in the present Iranian upheaval — it seems that everybody is tweeting
and facebooking over there — we can safely assume that reporting
the official results from the local precincts to the Regional or
Central Election Commission did not have to be done by time-consuming

Wherever I
witnessed fraud on the precinct level it either consisted of blatant
ballot stuffing (Azerbaijan: the emptying of the ballot box was
followed by a loud thud where the huge wad of folded together ballots
came down), ballot stealing (Serbia: in order to render the election
null and void by "disappearing" ballots so the turnout
would fall below the legally required 50%), or voter-faking (Georgia:
a tiny, empty station where hardly anyone had voted at noon had
magically produced over 1000 enthusiasts for democracy just a few
hours later, all using the same curled signature on the voter register…).
In all these cases the subsequent count was no doubt perfect (I
wasn’t at each of these counts, after all, so I cannot be entirely
sure), but, if so, that didn't make the final results fair. The
actual counting fraud I have come across was always done at one
or two levels above the precinct level
— for the sophisticated fraud it made no sense to fiddle results
where too many people might see what is going on. It also took time
to arrive at these fake results, because it takes time to either
buy people off or threaten them enough to make them shut up. Falsifying
results is also a bit of a conspiracy — you have to keep (the representatives
of) the victims of your fraud away from the action, paperwork has
to disappear, people have to be intimidated — it takes some work,

Another thing
to bear in mind when assessing allegations of fraud in an election
is who might have committed the fraud. All too often in the Western
mind, the storyline of an "opposition" fighting against
a "regime" leads to a reflexive sympathy for, and trust
in, the former. Yet, politicians being what they are, it is always
possible that the opposition employs the underhand methods in order
to fight its way to power. Although not likely applicable in rigid
one-party states or violent personal dictatorships, this question
is of importance in societies with an active and sizeable opposition,
even though — or especially when — they cannot be called fully democratic.
In this case, for instance, one has to ask the question, "who
controls the electoral process in the cities that were expected
to see a clear victory for the opposition candidates?"

Nothing in
the above proves or disproves fraud in the recent election in Iran,
of course. But since there seem to be hardly any reports indicating
the type of blatant, precinct-level fraud as described above, the
way it must have been done — if at all — is on the level of the
Regional or Central Electoral Commission by manipulating the count.
If so, one would expect results to have taken longer to be announced
for the above-mentioned reasons. Of course, the manipulation of
results could have been done crudely too, particularly if it was
done in a panic — by a bunch of incompetents who hadn't prepared
their conspiracy to defraud properly (which would render the current
Iranian authorities not much of a dictatorship — proper dictatorships
don't mess up their hold on power). In that case we should see real
evidence soon. After all, if the candidates were interested in a
fair vote they will have had their representatives and their observers
on the various electoral bodies. They will have independently collected
the results on the precinct level. They will have their campaign
headquarters where they can collate their findings and compare them
to the officially announced results. In short, they will have facts.

If not, they
are not interested in a fair vote but only in power, which would
render the distinction between a "white" — or green in
this case — opposition and a "black" regime rather meaningless.

So far, however,
the fact in itself that the results of this election were known
within a short time after the closing of the polls cannot be a convincing
argument that there must have been fraud. On past experience of
observing elections, it tends to indicate the opposite.

22, 2009

Doude van Troostwijk [send him
] is a Dutch historian and translator who has observed many
elections in the former communist block for the British Helsinki
Human Rights Group.

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