The numbers are all sketchy, but this much is obvious: Only a tiny fraction of the U.S. residents eligible to vote in the Iraqi election actually cast ballots.
Locally, of a potential voter pool estimated to be about 100,000, only 8,975 people voted. Nationally, estimates of eligible voters ranged as high as 240,000; 24,335 actually cast ballots, according to Jeremy Copeland of the International Organization for Migration, the group hired to conduct elections outside of Iraq. Previously, the Geneva-based IOM has run out-of-country voting for immigrant Afghans, East Timorese and Bosnians, to name a few.
The distances many in this country were forced to travel, first to register and then again to vote, could be staggering. With Los Angeles serving as the only registration and polling place west of the Mississippi River, Iraqis living in the Seattle area, for instance, faced two 40-hour roundtrip drives for their voices to be heard.
It could have been even worse.
The original deal with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq provided $92 million to hold voting in 14 countries worldwide, with polling locations only in the countries’ capitals.
IOM spokesperson June Chua says it immediately became apparent that one voting center in Washington, D.C., wasn’t going to be adequate.
“We decided we needed to reach as many Iraqi voters as we could,” Chua says.
Voting was expanded to Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles and metro Detroit.
Still more could have been done to make voting easier, says Imam Husham Al-Husainy, of Dearborn’s Karbalaa Islamic Education Center.
“We told (the IOM) the solution,” Al-Husainy says. “We told them either to combine registration with the election, or to have more voting centers. They are so stubborn. They refused to listen.”
The IOM’s position is that they’re lucky to have talked the Iraqi Electoral Rights Commission into five U.S. sites.
“People ask, ‘Why only five?’” Chua says. “My answer is, ‘Wow! We have five!’”
Originally, IOM workers had hoped to find registration and polling centers in Dearborn, Bloomfield Hills and Southfield, where the metro area’s Iraqi populations are centered, Chua says. Four days before registration was set to begin, IOM officials announced that there would be only one voting location, in Southgate.
“It’s been difficult to find a location because we have to meet certain standards. This location is almost perfect. It’s got a large parking lot, a large warehouse and it’s easy to secure,” Chua says.
The two-part process began with registration Jan. 17-23, later extended through Jan. 25, and ended with voting Jan. 28-30. Voting in Iraq took place Jan. 30. Out-of-country votes will be counted at the polling locations, with the end results released from Baghdad.
Iraqi voters were choosing among political parties that will form a Transitional National Assembly. That body’s main duties will be to elect a president and two deputy presidents, and to write a draft of the Iraqi Constitution. A draft constitution is scheduled to be completed by August and voted on in October.
Some 111 groups were certified to appear on the ballot, according to the IOM. That’s another problem with turnout, Al-Husainy says.
“We received ballots of candidates two days after registration began,” Al-Husainy says.
“With 111 different electoral slates, it’s hard to determine which one is a rational choice,” says Ronald Stockton, a social sciences professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Many Iraqi voters, Al-Husainy says, are taking their cues from religious leaders such as the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Al-Sistani, a prominent Shiite cleric who has roots in southern Iraq, has issued fatwas — or religious edicts — encouraging his followers both to vote, Al-Husainy says, and to accept the outcome of the election. Past chairman of the Southfield-based Chaldean Federation Sam Yono says many Chaldeans support the party of Younadam Kanna, a member of the Ruling Council.
“We would align ourselves with U.S. policy,” Yono says.
Expats who hold Iraqi citizenship, are eligible to hold Iraqi citizenship, or are second-generation Iraqis with Iraqi fathers all qualified to vote.
There’s no way to tell, Chua says, how many potential voters may not have had the right paperwork, or how many voters stayed away from the polls after a string of winter storms dumped massive amounts of snow on the Midwest and Northeast.
“There are a lot of factors [other than distance],” Chua says. “The thing is, it’s really only a 25-minute drive for most people. Compared to, say, 20 hours for someone from Seattle to vote in L.A.”
The Chaldean Federation organized bus trips daily from suburbs north of Detroit to Southgate in Wayne County during registration and voting.
“People had hoped voting would be closer to home,”
Difficulties finding locations in Detroit, D.C. and Los Angeles could explain poor voter turnout in the United States, but doesn’t explain the poor turnout abroad. Of the estimated 5 million Iraqis living outside their homeland, only about 265,000 voted.
Yono says he fears that Arab media reports, viewed by many expats via satellite, have hurt the turnout.
“They’re not painting a positive picture of the process,” Yono says. “They’re saying the election is not going to bring positive results. They have Sunni guys from all over the world denouncing the elections, denouncing America. They say it is not honest, and that the Sunnis are not going to support it, that it doesn’t represent the people of Iraq.”
Community leaders like Al-Husainy had hoped that a substantial out-of-country voter turnout could compensate for potential disruptions to the voting in an increasingly unstable Iraq.
Also, Al-Husainy says, as an Arab-American, he’s more likely to make a choice that balances the interests of Iraq and the United States.
Difficulty in balancing Arab and American interests may have contributed to low out-of-country turnout, Stockton says.
“They figure, we’re here, they’re there,” Stockton says.
Instability in Iraq, Stockton says, may compromise the election results, with large swaths of the population unable to participate in Sunday’s voting. Suppressed turnout — in Iraq and abroad —will be the biggest credibility issue in the election, Stockton says.
“The outcome is going to be shifted in favor of the Shia and the Kurds. For the past 500 years or so Sunni Arabs have dominated the [Iraqi] government, and have disproportionately dominated the military. They’re the ones fighting us now,” Stockton says.
Sunnis in Iraq, Stockton says, are largely boycotting
“The boycott is clearly linked to the resistance, and the resistance won’t end until the occupation ends. This will create a problem for our policies,” Stockton says. “We had hoped to create a viable national entity, but if Iraq fragments, it will undermine any hopes the Bush administration has for a stable Iraq.”
Stability, Stockton says, would be the best possible outcome from the election, while the worst case scenario “is the whole thing collapses, the government is not legitimate, and there is a civil war.”
That’s another extreme, Stockton says. The mostly likely result is that the election won’t create enough stability for U.S. troops to start pulling out.
Poor turnout and disproportionate voting — not to mention a boycott — won’t add to Iraqi stability.
“The idea of boycotting an election is to undermine the credibility of the results. This election is not credible in many eyes already. If that’s true, it means we will have a government that has no legitimacy except in the eyes of those who support it.
“That’s a very dangerous situation.”Nancy Kaffer is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]