Millions of ghost voters in Iraq?

This article was published in November 2009, ahead of the 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq. I cannot check how much of my criticism of that time is still valid today for the elections in Iraq this month. I will try to update my information.
Facts are:
– Still no census has been held in Iraq although the need for it has been very clear since 2003. So we don’t know if there are 26 or 32 million Iraqis…

– The introduction of electronic voter cards will not prevent some Iraqis from possibly voting twice during the upcoming nationwide parliamentary elections, Kurdish politicians fear (see article). The Election Commission (IHEC) said it had already “withdrawn more than eleven thousand e- cards of deceased persons, as well as more than 21, 205 duplicated cards”.

– Voting rights are still based on the administration of the food rationing cards (introduced in the times of the UN embargo against Saddam’s Iraq and partially updated since) and on the illusion that relatives duly report natural deaths to the authorities (around 150,000 per year in Iraq).

– The problems with numbers of refugees in- and outside Iraq remain unsolved, while the fighting in Anbar province between the Iraqi army and Baathist and foreign insurgents displaced in the last weeks around another 400,000 people, mainly Sunnis, according to the UN. IHEC doesn’t say how Iraqis in for example Fallujah are supposed to vote, while their city is occupied by Baathist and foreign fighters, or how Iraqi refugees in Syria are going to vote, a country at war.

– The IHEC website doesn’t mention what rules are applied in practice for admission of local observers, such as membership of an NGO (nongovernmental organization) that has been approved and thus registered by the government.

– An article by mentioned trade in electronic voting cards has already begun. The average wage in Iraq for workers is around 300 US dollar a month. The article says around $200 is offered for a voting card.

– The IHEC, Iraq’s so-called “independent” Election Commission, wanted to resign en masse in March, because of “political interference” and contradictory decisions of the Iraqi parliament and the Iraqi Federal Court. It must be said that most important positions in Iraqi government institutions, independent or not,  have been given in the past 8 years to members and fellow travellers of Shi’ite parties.  Because the “political interference” was clear for everyone to see, the attempt of the IHEC to resignate seems only a trick to keep its legitimacy.

– Dozens of candidates have been excluded from the elections because of their  “ill repute”,  which – according to critics – means “they are against Prime-Minister Nouri al-Maliki”. See article.

– International observers: you might think as an innocent newspaper reader  that such observers, paid for by for example the EU, are “objective”. They are not.  They receive instructions on what to think and conclude, based on the idea that a certain level of fraud doesn’t need to impact election results. In Iraq, it is obviously not the fraud but all other conditions of the elections process that |I describe in my article, that will decide which party wins. Be sure that also this year EU observers will declare the Iraqi parliamentary elections more or less “free and fair”.

IHEC says that this year there are around 22 million voters. Until now it has distributed around 16 million voting cards. Turnout in the 2010 parliamentary elections was 62,5% or roughly 11,5 million voters. If again some 11,5 million people bother to vote, the number of votes needed for one seat in parliament is 11.500.000 divided by 325 (seats), or a little more than 35,000. In the 2010 elections the difference between the two biggest parties was only two seats, so the administrative mess and fraud can very well be a reason a party wins or looses. So I must disagree with the point of view taken by the UN at the end of my article.

The 2009 article:
What we are heading for  in Iraq, could be hundreds of thousands if not millions of ghost voters.

2 or 4 or 6 million refugees?
How are ghost voters created? First of all there is no proper registration of the names and numbers of Iraqis that escaped the country since 2003 and especially since 2006, next to the 1,5 million of Iraqis displaced inside Iraq since 2006. These internal refugees are not only not counted and registered well (except in the Kurdistan Region), they also showed little enthusiasm to vote in the provincial elections this year.
Around one and a quarter million Iraqis voted outside the country in December 2005 according to this newspaper, so nobody could logically object if that  figure would double because so many more escaped the country since 2006. More than 11 million Iraqis voted in December 2005. Imagine that number will stay the same, and that next year 2,5 million are voting outside the country, while there are  1,5 million refugees inside the country. That is 4 million, more than one third, of partially unknown people.
It is important, with such a huge number, to be sure it is real. The UN refugees commission has registered only a part of these people. Jordan has also only registered part of them. It is simply not the job of  the Jordanian government to finance voter registration as a favour for a lazy Iraqi government. Neither is this the job of the Syrian government, which has even less money to conduct such an operation, nor the job of other governments in Europe, the Gulf states or America .
Last year I spoke to one Iraqi election observer who was sent to the United States . I don’t remember whether it was for the January or December 2005 elections. In one American state only he could easily see that Iraqi parties had created a ghost army of some 50,000 voters. We know what will be done, at least in theory, in Iraq to guarantee more or less fair elections.  But we have seen little to address fraud outside the country.

31, 29 or 26 million Iraqis?
The other point is that there has been no census although it was promised for this month. How many Iraqis live in the country? One government official recently told the press that according to the official estimate there are more than 31 million people now inside Iraq . The CIA factbook is claiming that a correct estimate would be around 29 million, which comes close to the population figures of the UN. But both the government and the CIA (“migration figures 2008, 2007, 2006: not available”) are not taking into account the people who left the country since the last parliamentary elections of 2005, as if these refugees don’t exist. They simply seem to start from the population figure that was given by Saddam’s government in 2002 and then added every year some 700,000 newborns minus those who died a natural death. The government in Baghdad adds another two million newborns as if the Iraqis are suddenly producing much more children. So there is a difference of at least two million  people and maximum some six million between the governmental estimates and reality.

Dead grandfathers
Some 600,000 mainly older Iraqis inside and outside Iraq died a natural death since 2005 if we trust the statistics. As the security situation and the rule of militias have been messing up the daily life of people in Baghdad and the South since February 2006, one can justifiably ask how many of these people have been reported dead to the proper authorities, the food rationing agency and how this has been done for those who died outside Iraq.  One can also ask: who in heaven’s name cared to execute this civic duty? Also: only relatives can remove the dead from the voters lists. With millions gone and displaced, many dead will stay on the lists and can be used by whatever parties that love the dead to vote for them. Is it really exaggerated to estimate there will be half a million of zombies awakening on election day next year?

4,4 million corrections
To get an idea of the enormous trouble faced by the Election Commission in the upcoming two months when Iraqi voters can register again, we only need to look at the figures for 2005 provided by the UN’s commission in Iraq , UNAMI. The 2005 elections happened in the time that the UN claimed the administration of the food rationing system was “fairly accurate”. In UNAMI’s fact sheet about the 2005 elections it reads that during voter registration  “close to 4,500 deceased were removed and over 7,000 changes of location were processed. More importantly, over 3,200,000 corrections were made and close to 1,200,000 additions were registered.”  I couldn’t find any reliable statistics about the last elections in 2008, about the corrections and additions during voter registration.

Voting registration centers that don’t open

Another problem needs to be mentioned: in 2005 around 15 percent of the voter registration centers simply didn’t open. This is another problem that might occur again and fifteen percent of the voters still represents 1,8 million people who might face problems on Election Day with their name and papers, cannot remove their dead relatives etcetera.

Far fewer observers
Other conclusions in relation to the chances for fraud in 2010 are easy: for example the new elections will have far fewer Iraqi  observers. In 2005 there were 300,000 of them (source: ACE) . I cannot check this figure but one organization alone, Tammouz, claimed to have  fielded 20,000 observers.
In 2010, according to a new law on the election observers issued by the Election Commission, the number of observers “cannot be higher than the number of polling stations” in each governorate. Suppose there will be 32,000 schools and other places where people can vote, as in 2005. This means the number of observers is decimated by some 90%, from 300,000 to 32,000.
If a team of observers wants to visit all stations in its area, it could stay only for one hour or so in each station. Also, observers work more confidently if they work in a group. If observers want to check polling stations from opening to closing time, they would have to appoint one person to sit alone (and vulnerable) in one polling station the entire day if they want to check every station. Most of the information on fraud then has to come from the so-called party agents who will be monitoring the elections.
This is a step back from 2005. In 2010 like in 2005 election observers cannot file complaints about violations of election rules, only individuals can. But the observers write reports and these were used in 2005 to compare them with the complaints. If there was a  complaint about a polling station plus a negative report from observers about the same location, the complaint was classified “red” and in principle investigated (especially in the North and much less in the South, some insiders in the Election Commission claim). If the number of observers is much reduced, their impact on investigations of fraud and irregularities will also be much smaller.
In the past trainers of the Election Commission advised observers to take a car and accompany the sealed ballot boxes to the counting center in their area, to prevent  crooks from stuffing the ballot boxes on the way. With so few observers this can be done in 2010 with far fewer boxes of  course.

Mostly government-friendly observers?
Not only that: in the new law on election observers it says that individuals cannot apply to become election observers, “only people that belong to a non-governemental organization” (ngo). But that ngo or association has to be “properly registered” with the government  in Baghdad . This registration procedure  has however been used since 2004  as a weapon against unwelcome associations . In a  report presented this month to the United Nations and written by one of the biggest human rights alliances in Iraq , it says:   “The department of Non-Governmental Organizations belonging to the Council of Minister’s General Secretariat plays an arbitrary, non-independent role in dealing with civil society organizations through complicated procedures and demands. It delays issuing and renewing operating licenses. Such processes are worrisome to civil society organization representatives across Iraq , particularly those who are independent and not affiliated to any political party. On the other hand, organizations that have political affiliation and support conduct their operations easily and freely, without complications.” (1) In other words, most observers will probably come from government-friendly ngo’s.

Count the voters!
I am sorry to have bored you with all these numbers, but I think it has become absolutely necessary to have an extra organization added to the elections of 2010 (instead of changing the existing laws which might take a century). This organization’s people would simply count at every polling station the number of voters that got in.  It could be even a private, civil organization, with volunteers. At the closing of the polling station, these ‘counters’ will sms to a special telephone number the number of voters who got in. We have plenty of teachers in Iraq who could be given this task and most polling centres will be schools anyway. The idea is that if there is no credible figure for the population inside Iraq , it is hard to argue that hundreds of thousands of names or even millions mentioned on voter registration lists are ghosts.
This counting at the doorstep  is one of the ways we could prevent an army of ghosts to vote, whose fraud will be nothing compared to the little tricks of 2005 .   Iraq, unlike other troublesome countries, doesn’t count the votes in each polling station and and it doesn’t oblige the staff to nail a paper on the door, announcing the results for everyone to see, and then seal the box again and send it to the capital.

How ghosts vote
Also in Iraq , it seems most fraud during elections (not before or after) is done inside the polling stations. In 2005  fraud went on mainly like this, according to a report by ACE:  “In December 2005 many complaints came from a few geographic areas, where local actors had learned to stuff ballot boxes with fraudulent ballots more  effectively from the experience of their fellow citizens in January. By October, ballot stuffing had become more sophisticated. In several locations, people stuffed the boxes before the polling center opened. In doing so, some of them created a vote distribution that was not credible, revealing their fraud. However, in one instance, aware of this potential  problem, a group ensured a ballot box had about 400 ballots “cast” for one party and about 100 for other parties (polling stations usually had about 500 registered voters). However, their activity was detected through complaints and the box in question was voided. Other less experienced fraudsters completed forms showing 600-nil results, an optimism that was  revealing.”

With the existing system of elections in Iraq called ‘proportional representation’, a voter chooses a party or representative from one national list. The United Nations has argued that in such a system, a census is not so important. The votes cast reflect in principle the wishes of the population. If  Iraq would adopt  another system where every electoral district can send a certain number of representatives to Baghdad and if this number is based on population figures, a census would be absolutely necessary.
In the existing elections system, simply the new parliament will be based on the votes cast. But by whom? That’s the question.
Follow me if you like on Twitter about the #IraqElections2014, @VanAmmelrooy
See for election news also the English page on


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