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The Expat Vote

13 Jun 2009 13:36No Comments

Voters in London, New York, and across California are expressing concern and frustration over voting irregularities that they feel may be an orchestrated attempt to invalidate their votes. The problem centers around confusion with the ballot, and also in San Francisco, not enough ballots themselves.

The ballot confusion concerns the box on the ballot asking voters to enter the candidate's code, and the codes that were distributed at the polling stations. In some cases, these codes were not distributed at all. Voters at polling stations in Iran were instructed that to properly fill the ballot, they must write-in the candidate's name, but also write in a box a code that corresponds with each candidate. To vote for Mousavi, voters were told to write his name and enter the code "77." For Ahmadinejad, the code was "44." However, those numbers are not the same as the codes that foreign polling stations were instructing voters to enter. In at least the California and London, voters were told that Mousavi's code was simply "4." Thus, Mousavi voters wrote in his name and entered the number "4" in the code box. To add to the confusion and perhaps credibility to the claim that Mousavi's code was "4," Mousavi was listed as the fourth candidate on the ballot. In New York, the system differed from even that: voters who asked about the box were told to "leave it blank."

This may be an innocent inconsistency and may not matter if the ballots are counted honestly and locally. However, the propensity for ballot-counting fraud exists where a counter can read-in an ambiguity where the voter did not intend. For example, a ballot counter could simply claim that because the code number and the candidate's name do not correspond to those distributed in Iran (and seemingly the standard), they should then be invalidated for being ambiguous or improperly filled. Alternatively, the counter could disingenuously "resolve the ambiguity" by following the code which, not surprisingly, is closer to Ahmadinejad's assigned code of 44. Worse yet, another "4" could simply be added alongside the intended Mousavi vote to make the ballot read: Code 44, which is Ahmadinejad's code. This could hypothetically be a basis upon which to discard the ballot, or count it for whomever the counter chooses.

In New York, voters fared even worse. When asked what the code meant and how to properly fill-in the ballot, voters were told by polling administrators simply to: "leave it blank." The obvious danger here is that the ballot may be, on its face, invalidated for being improperly written. Another obvious concern is that a code that doesn't correspond with the written name may simply be added to the filled-in ballot later, since voters left the box blank.

In San Francisco, many frustrated voters won't even have the chance to fill-in the ballot improperly: they won't get to vote at all. Recently, several of those waiting in line to vote were told that the polling station has run out of ballots. They were told that replacements are being sent, but that there are only 600 and after that, no one else will be able to vote.

Half a world away the significance of a crucial vote was apparent as Iranians waited in line to cast their absentee ballots in the Washington, DC area Friday.

Ballots were said to have run out up to several times at the various polling stations due to such a high voter turnout this year. By midday, the polling station at Tyson's Corner had more than 2,000 voters, mostly youth. IEC organizers said 250 people had shown up to vote within the first hour of polls opening. The number of voters significantly increased throughout the day.

Holding crimson passports, a group of young people stood in a circle under blue skies at the Iranian Interests Section building in DC and discussed what would come out of this election.

"If there is no cheating, Mousavi will win," said Eli Ahmadi, 24, quoting a popular slogan used by backers of the Reformist candidate. Dressed in bright green to display support for her choice for president, Ahmadi said she hopes Mousavi can bring more freedom and democracy to Iran.

As a Bahai, Ahmadi explained that whoever wins, nothing will change dramatically for her, but that it is "always better to choose the bad than the worse."

With four candidates vying for the position, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi emerged as the frontrunners in the race. They sold their cases to the people through rallies and the nation's first-ever televised debates -- live broadcasts which did not come without ample name -- calling and mudslinging.

Although the official election results gave the current president a significant lead, both top contenders declared victory--Ahmadinejad by citing poll numbers and Mousavi by claiming vote-rigging.

The overwhelming majority of people in the Washington area expressed support for Mousavi, saying he would establish a more flexible government for Iranians. Some Mousavi supporters said his popularity stemmed from a hope for reform, while one voter said peer pressure amongst youth could have also be a factor behind his large support group.

But while Mousavi backers dominated the choice of voters in the US capital area, supporters of Ahmadinejad were just as ardent in the defense of their candidate. Mohammed, a physician who regularly attends the Islamic Education Center (IEC) in Potomac, Maryland, did not disclose who he was voting for, but said many people he had spoken to were pleased with Ahmadinejad's presidency.

Mohammed said the many believe the current President made significant advances for Iran, such as making it the eighth nation in the world to launch a satellite into orbit. He also said that Ahmadinejad had offered to pay his respects to the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks by going to Ground Zero in New York City, but was barred by the Bush administration from making the visit.

The other two contenders in the race were Former Speaker of the Majlis Mehdi Karroubi, another Reformist and former Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Rezaee, a Conservative.

Babak, a resident of Maryland, was one of the people who voted for neither of the two main candidates, casting his ballot in favor of Rezaee. He said he did not like the Reformist choices, but that he was not entirely pleased with Ahmadinejad.

"With the current situation in Iran, many people are interested in the destiny of their home country," said Reza Jaafri, an elections organizer at the Tyson's Corner polling station in Virginia.

Voters were simply required to bring their passports or birth certificates to prove Iranian identity and that they were over 18 years in age before being handed a ballot.

Nemat Fazli spent 31 years in the United States after living in Iran for 23 years. "I love my country Iran," he said. "I think Mousavi is wise and calm. It is crucial to build a better future."

Like most others, Fazli believes there is nothing wrong with Iran producing nuclear energy, but he said nuclear weapons should be banned for every country.

Another voter said that some of Ahmadinejad's support came from the fact that he increased nuclear energy production in the face of Western opposition. "He took Iran from three to 7,400 centrifuges during this term, all of which were approved by the IAEA 11 times as being safe," the voter said.

In the end, the president can only wield partial power in the Iranian government, as Supreme and religious leaders also hold considerable sway in decision making. Some say that whoever wins the election will not be able to change policies significantly, while others say that voting a Reformist into office will bring balance to the administration.

As the election results remained contested, Iranians braced for whatever may come next in their country's future. And as the polling station organizers stamped their passports, Iranian-Americans crossed their fingers in hopes that they, too, would be able to make a mark in the future of Iran.

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