Stolen Election in Iran? An Inside View of Vote Fraud

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 place.

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.

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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 hour.

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 pigeon-post.

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, really.

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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.

June 22, 2009