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Comment | Virtual Votes: Questions over New Electronic Election System

by TINA AMINI

04 May 2012 00:46Comments
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Stronger voter ID verification, but even less transparency in ballot tabulation.

Tina Amini is a pen name for an analyst who specializes in Iranian elections. She divides her time between the United States and Iran.
[ comment ] Iran will hold parliamentary runoff elections Friday in 33 constituencies. The most important votes by far will be cast in the Tehran electoral district, where out of 30 seats, only five candidates received sufficient votes to gain entry into the ninth postrevolutionary Majles. Twenty-five more Tehran legislators will need to be chosen in the runoff, a number unprecedented in the history of parliamentary elections in the capital. This second round is thus crucial, as the deputies from the capital district tend to become the most influential ones in the parliament and to determine its character. What make this election -- like the first round that preceded it in March -- unusual is that some of the voting will be done electronically, even as serious questions surround how electronic voting is being administered by the Iranian government.

For years, Iranians have voted by presenting their shenasnameh, a document similar to a passport. Typically, voters could cast their ballot anywhere in the country by presenting the shenasnameh, which was then stamped. Iran has not maintained separate voter registration lists, nor has it required that voters cast their ballots at a specific precinct. Iranians often refer to the shenasnameh as a "birth certificate" as it is typically issued at the time and location of a person's birth. It is the responsibility of the local issuing agencies to report to the national authorities the documents they have issued, which they appear to have done less than systematically, especially in the countryside. If a shenasnameh is reported lost, a new document can usually be issued, again locally. For that and many other reasons, the Interior Ministry has since 2008 issued each Iranian aged 15 and over, in addition to the shenasnameh, a national identity card (cart-e melli), which is recorded in a national database with a unique number and a photo.

In part because of the inadequacies of the traditional voter identification process, the government intended to hold the Islamic Republic's eighth parliamentary elections in 2008 electronically. However, the plan was not approved by the Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog body, due to a lack of monitoring infrastructure for electronic voting. A member of the Majles's Local Councils and Internal Affairs Commission, Ayoub Papari, stated last July that the 2012 parliamentary elections would again not be held electronically for that reason. However, in November, Interior Minister Mohammad Mostafa Najar announced that electronic voting would be fully implemented at ten percent of polling stations around the country in time for the vote. It was also announced that verification of voter identification would be conducted electronically in all constituencies on Election Day.

The March 2 elections saw the beginning of a shift to a new system of voting. For the first time, all voters were required to carry both their shenasnamehs and cart-e mellis to the polls. Verification of cart-e melli numbers was implemented electronically at all polling stations around the country. According to the Interior Ministry, voters had their information transferred online to a supervisory terminal to be verified. However, it is not clear what measures were taken by the Interior Ministry to ensure that the verification systems would keep records of cart-e melli numbers if a system at a polling station, constituency, or city failed to stay connected to the database network on Election Day. In order to verify voter identification online and prevent voters from casting multiple ballots, the verification systems at polling stations need to be continuously connected to the database of names of eligible voters. Any disconnection or power outage that disrupts the verification procedure could make repeat voting possible.

In addition, electronic voting was administered at 1,395 polling stations in 14 out of 207 electoral districts for the first time in round one of the elections. While detailed information about the mechanics of electronic voting in Iran is scarce, it appears that the recently introduced system involves the voter entering preferences on a screen. Amir Shojaan, head of the Center for Innovation, Administrative Development, and Information Technology at the Interior Ministry, described the process as similar to using an ATM. A card is fed into the machine that prevents the voter from casting more than one ballot. The votes are recorded in the memory of the voting machine and later transferred. A paper record is generated in case a recount is ordered. It is not clear what, if any, procedures allow candidates' election monitors to verify that the results are being properly recorded -- where paper ballots are used, monitors can verify ballots cast into the boxes.

The electronic voting pilot project apparently did not meet with the success that officials claimed. While Interior Minister Najar stated after the election that the counting of ballots in the 14 designated constituencies took 60 to 90 minutes, the order in which results were made public by his ministry shows something else. The election results of three of the electronic voting constituencies were among the first to be announced by the Interior Ministry. The results of six others were announced, after a considerable delay, the day following the election, and the election results of the final five were announced yet another day later. Technical issues were reported from the designated constituencies, and it is not clear what infrastructure was put in place to ensure the integrity of the election process. The Interior Ministry's very late announcement of the election results in 11 out of the 14 constituencies is also evidence of lack of transparency and fuels suspicions of vote tampering.

It was already surprising that the Guardian Council okayed electronic voting for 2012 vote despite the recent reports that the necessary infrastructure was still lacking. It is possible that the council and the Interior Ministry plan to hold Iran's 2013 presidential election fully electronically, and that the implementation of electronic voting was expedited in preparation for that crucial contest. Electronic voting could provide the Iranian authorities with the opportunity to more effectively manipulate election results and thus better maintain legitimacy in the eyes of Iranians and the international community. Western policymakers should take note of this year's parliamentary election process, as it may presage more sweeping procedural changes to come.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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