Wednesday marks the deadline in Iraq for reporting incidents of voter fraud. Iraqis from across the political spectrum all say that incidents of cheating were higher this time than in any of Iraq’s previous elections, and most blame irregularities and problems with a new electronic voting system. While it is a truism that Iraqis disappointed in their results often imagine cheating rather than acknowledge their own failures to appeal to a broader electorate, there is enough anecdotal evidence and real questions about the system to merit investigation.
Facebook (and Whatsapp) remain the major ways many Iraqis consume news. In recent days, an Arabic article titled the “Lying Boxes” has been widely circulated among both Kurdish and Arab, Sunni and Shiite political leaders. It provides a deep dive into accusations that the electronic voting system employed for the first time this month was a complete failure on multiple fronts.
The Independent High Election Commission, a body that long ago lost its independence and is now staffed by apparatchiks from the major parties, contracted with a mysterious and little-known Korean company to provide ballot boxes that scan votes and uplink them to a central database upon the closure of polls. That Korean company had little track record, has little behind it but a webpage, and the single international election Iraqis say it previously managed in Kyrgyzstan ended in disaster.The company provides no photos of its operations in Kyrgyzstan, leading to further questions about whether its claims of operations there are true. There is also a question why the IHEC contracted with a company office in Poland and signed the contract in Turkey if Miro System is truly is based in South Korea beyond simply a name on a registry absent an address.
The alleged problems get worse. Iraqi leaders also say a preliminary audit by the United Nations of the elections management system, the data archive system, and the survey/statistical system had failed. Nevertheless, the IHEC went forward. On election day, some candidates say the receipts produced by the boxes did not match figures uploaded to the central count, and some candidates say some boxes returned zero votes for themselves when they were where the candidates themselves voted. Nor do the USB serial numbers from the boxes necessarily always match.
While the IHEC has reportedly received upward of 1,000 complaints, it appears disinclined to order a manual recount, let alone to cancel the elections, for two reasons. First, they and much of the Iraqi political class fear violence could occur if a recount strips some politicians (especially from Muqtada al-Sadr’s list) of seats. And second, because they do not want to cast doubt on the legitimacy of electronic voting. Many Iraqis shrug and say that cheating benefited some disenfranchised others, but most people will be brought into a ruling coalition one way or another.
This is wrong-headed, and the IHEC should order a partial, random manual recount (perhaps of 25 percent of the ballot boxes) if nothing else as a backup internal audit to enhance confidence in elections now and in the future. If the IHEC does not do so, many Iraqis think, it will be because they fear they’ll have a major problem on their hands if the audit shows a real discrepancy between the ballots cast and the automated count from the scan.
Such a discrepancy would either indicate software problems or perhaps hacking. But the conspiracies now circulating (some Kurds blame Turkey or Masoud Barzani’s dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party for some of the bizarre results coming out of Iraqi Kurdistan, while others blame Gulf states for hacking to benefit Muqtada al-Sadr as their new anti-Iranian tool) erode confidence in Iraqi democracy far more seriously. There is no indication the flash drives and data transfers were secure.
It’s always possible that allegations of voting box irregularities are the result of sour grapes on the part of those lists and parties who did worse than expected, but the idea that an audit would undercut confidence in future elections is wrong-headed; indeed, the reality is the opposite. It is positive that Iraqi elections are unpredictable and Iraqis wish to hold incumbents and the broader political class to account, but that too does not justify the possibility of cheating and manipulation.
One Iraqi politician from a major political bloc found it ironic that the only item the U.S. and Iranian embassies appeared to agree on in Baghdad was to ignore the allegations of voter fraud for the sake of stability. This is unacceptable.
The future confidence in Iraqi democracy is far more important than the inconvenience of a manual recount. The political jockeying can continue (a handful of seats may be in question, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan and perhaps with some of the Shiite-dominated lists as well), but no future government will be fully legitimate in voter eyes if questions over the authenticity of results are swept under the rug.
As Ronald Reagan said in a different context, “Trust, but Verify.” Iraqi voters deserve verification.