Since the Iranian presidential election of June 12, allegations that the announced winner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory was stolen have played an important role in the demonstrations, political conflict, and media reporting on events there. Some say that it does not matter whether the elections were stolen or not, since the government has responded to peaceful protests with violence and arrests. These actions are indeed abhorrent and inexcusable, and the world's outrage is justified. So, too, is the widespread concern for the civil liberties of Iranians who have chosen to exercise their rights to peacefully protest.
At the same time, the issue of whether the election was stolen will remain relevant, both to our understanding of the situation and to U.S.-Iranian relations, for reasons explained below. It is therefore worth looking at whether this allegation is plausible.
According to the official election results, the incumbent president Ahmadinejad won the election by a margin of 63 percent to 34 percent for his main competitor, Mir Hossein Mousavi. This is a difference of approximately 11.3 million votes. Any claim of victory for Mousavi must therefore contain some logically coherent story of how at least 5.65 million votes (one half of the 11.3 million margin) might have been stolen.
This implies looking at the electoral procedures. There were approximately 45,000 polling locations with ballot boxes, not including mobile units. If these ballot boxes were collected by a central authority and taken away to a central location, and counted (or not counted) behind closed doors, this would be consistent with an allegation of massive vote theft.
However, this does not appear to be the case. After searching through thousands of news articles without finding any substantive information on the electoral process, I contacted Seyed Mohammad Marandi, who heads the North American Studies department at the University of Tehran. He described the electoral procedures to me, and together we interviewed, by phone, Sayed Moujtaba Davoodi, a poll worker who participated in the June 12 election in region 13 (of 22 regions) in Tehran. Mr. Daboodi has worked in elections for the past 16 years. The following is from their description of the procedures.
According to their account, there are 14 people working at each polling place, in addition to an observer representing each candidate. Most polling places are schools or mosques; if the polling place is a school then the team of 14 people would include teachers. There are two to four representatives of the Guardian Council, and two from the local police. After the last votes are cast, the ballots are counted in the presence of the 14 people plus the candidates' representatives. All of them sign five documents that contain the vote totals. One of the documents goes into the ballot box; one stays with the leader of the local election team; and the others go to other levels of the electoral administration, including the Guardian Council and the Interior.
The vote totals are then sent to a local center that also has representatives of the Guardian Council, Interior, and the candidates. They add up the figures from a number of ballot boxes, and then send them to Interior. In this election, the numbers were also sent directly to Interior from the individual polling places, in the presence of the 14-18 witnesses at the ballot box.
Each voter presents identification, and his or her name and information is entered into a computer, and also recorded in writing. The voter's thumbprint is also put on the stub of the ballot. The voter's identification is stamped to prevent multiple voting at different voting places, and there is also a computer and written record of everyone who voted at each polling place.
If this information is near accurate, it would appear that large scale fraud is extremely difficult, if not impossible, without creating an extensive trail of evidence. Indeed, if this election was stolen, there must be tens of thousands of witnesses -- or perhaps hundreds of thousands -- to the theft. Yet there are no media accounts of interviews with such witnesses.
Is it possible that, in most of the country, the procedures outlined above -- followed in previous elections -- were abruptly abandoned, with ballot boxes whisked away before anyone could count them at the precinct level? Again, many of the more than 700,000 people involved in the electoral process would have been witnesses to such a large-scale event. Given the courage that hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated in taking to the streets, we would expect at least some to come forward with information on what happened.
Rostam Pourzal, an Iranian-American human rights campaigner, told me that it is common knowledge in Iran that these are the election procedures and that they were generally followed in this election. Professor Marandi concurred, and added: "There's just no way that any large-scale or systematic fraud could have taken place."
The government has agreed to post the individual ballot box totals on the web. This would provide another opportunity for any of the hundreds of thousands of witnesses to the precinct-level vote count to say that they witnessed a different count, if any did so.
A number of other arguments have been put forward that the vote must have been rigged. Most of them have been refuted. For example, the idea that the results were announced too quickly: How long does it take to count 500-800 ballots at a polling place, with only the presidential candidates on the ballot? It could easily be done within the time that it took, as it was in 2005.
The New York Times' front page story on Tuesday, June 23 begins with this sentence: "Iran's most powerful oversight council announced on Monday that the number of votes recorded in 50 cities exceeded the number of eligible voters there by three million, further tarnishing a presidential election..." This was widely interpreted as the government admitting to some three million fraudulent votes.
Here is the Guardian Council's statement, from their website:
Candidates campaigns have said that in 80-170 towns and cities, more people have voted than are eligible voters. We have determined, based on preliminary studies, that there are only about 50 such cities or towns... The total number of votes in these cities or towns is something close to three million; therefore, even if we were to throw away all of these votes, it would not change the result.
The letter from the Guardian Council also offers a number of reasons that a city or town can have a vote total that exceeds the number of eligible voters: some towns are weekend or vacation destinations, some voters are commuters, some districts are not demographically distinct entities, and Iranians can vote wherever they want (unlike in the United States, where they must vote at their local polling place). On the face of it, this does not appear implausible. Contrary to press reports, there is no admission from the Iranian government that any of these votes were fraudulent, nor has evidence of such fraud been made public.
The only independent poll we have, from the New America Foundation and conducted three weeks before the election, predicts the result that occurred. And a number of experts have presented plausible explanations for why Ahmadinejad could have won by a large margin.
Does it matter if the election was stolen? Certainly there are grounds for challenging the overall legitimacy of the electoral process, in which the government determines which candidates can compete, and the press and other institutions are constrained.
But from the point of view of promoting more normal relations between the United States and Iran, avoiding a military conflict, and bringing stability to the region, the truth as to the more narrow question of whether the election was procedurally fraudulent may be relevant. If in fact the election was not stolen, and Washington (and Europe) pretend that it was, this can contribute to a worsening of relations. It will give further ammunition to hard-liners in Iran, who are portraying the whole uprising as a conspiracy organized by the West. (It doesn't help that the Obama administration hasn't announced an end to the covert operations that the Bush administration was carrying out within Iran). More importantly, it will boost hardliners here -- including some in the Obama administration -- who want to de-legitimize the government of Iran in order to avoid serious negotiations over its nuclear program. That is something that we should avoid, because a failure to seriously pursue negotiations now may lead to war in the future.
This column was published by PostGlobal at washingtonpost.com on June 26, 2009.