Iraq election complaints: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Recently, the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq released a statement regarding the complaints of irregularities associated with the December 15, 2005 elections for Council of Representatives. A pdf version of the statement is available from our website. This statement provides a great amount of detail about the types of irregularities and their incidence rates.

First, a few details — as I understand them — about this particular election.

The recent Iraqi election conducted balloting in approximately 6000 polling centers. Each polling center had one or more polling stations; they used roughly one polling station for every 500 voters. Polling centers and stations were obviously in place throughout Iraq, but they were also in many locations throughout the world so that expatriate Iraqis could participate in these historic elections.

At this time, it appears that there were over 12 million votes cast (12,396,631 total votes cast, according to the recent unofficial tally). Of these, 63,930 were tallied as blank and 141,568 were invalidated. Thus, there were 12,191,133 valid votes tabulated in this election, meaning that 98.3% of votes cast were valid and non-blank (or that 1.66% of votes cast were not tallied).

Second, the Iraqi procedure for dealing with election complaints seems thorough, if it was followed as they lay out in their report (and I’ve heard nothing yet to indicate that they did not follow these procedures). The 1985 complaints were divided into two types: red complaints, or those that could effect the election results; and green complaints, that are problematic but unlikely to effect the election results. After this categorization, 58 of the complaints were labeled red, and thus merited detailed examination.

I’ve done my best to summarize the complaints and their incidence rates (as I understand them from the report) in this pdf table. This table presents the complaint description, the number of such complaints, the number that were demonstrated to be valid, and the number of polling centers or stations with valid problems.

As the table shows, by far the complaint with the highest reporting and validation rate is associated with invalid ballot papers in ballot boxes — this ended up in the invalidation of ballots from 24 polling centers and 5 polling stations. Second in order comes interference in ballot counting and sorting, with 7 complaints (of which 2 were deemed valid), in 2 polling stations. The remaining complaints were rare: taking ballot boxes illegally (2 complaints, none validated); illegal campaigning (1 complaint, which was validated); name not on ballot (one complaint, not deemed valid); armed forces or police interference (2 complaints, one validated); and electioneering (one complaint that was validated). Given over 6000 polling centers, while any substantiated fraud is a problem, it appears from this report to have had a relatively low incidence rate, involving only a tiny fraction of polling centers.

Also, the report discusses another problem that arose in tabulation and auditing. Here they found that there were 53 polling stations in Iraq in which the number of paper ballots in the ballot boxes exceeded the maximum number of known voters. This same problem appeared in 4 polling stations and 2 polling centers in Istanbul. Votes from these locations were invalidated after there apparently were no substantiated reasons for excess ballots to have been voted. While also a problem, again the basic incidence rate here of potential fraud appears relatively low.

It is worth concluding by noting that the procedures in place for this election allow for quick centralization of complaints, and for rapid investigation of each complaint. This report provides some useful information, both for students of Iraqi politics and election administration more generally. First, it gives us some data that we can use to study the elusive question of election fraud. Second, it demonstrates that it is possible to quickly and (hopefully) effectively investigate election complaints.

This second conclusion begs the question: if they can do it in Iraq, why can’t we do the same here in the United States? Indeed, we have elections in the U.S. involving many more votes cast, but we ought to be able to investigate all valid complaints and to produce post-election reports, quickly and thoroughly, about these investigations. Would we have fewer concerns about the integrity of the American electoral process if we had procedures similar to the Iraqis? Hard to know, but it certainly might be worth the effort to find out.