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Was Iran's Election Stolen?

By Mark Weisbrot
co-director, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Since the Iranian presidential election of June 12, allegations that the announced winner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory was stolen have played an important role in the demonstrations, political conflict, and media reporting on events there. Some say it does not matter whether the elections were stolen because the government has responded to peaceful protests with violence and arrests. These actions are indeed abhorrent and inexcusable, and the world's outrage is justified. So, too, is the widespread concern for the civil liberties of Iranians who have chosen to exercise their rights to peacefully protest.

At the same time, the issue of whether the election was stolen will remain relevant, both to our understanding of the situation and to U.S.-Iranian relations, for reasons explained below. It is therefore worth looking at whether this allegation is plausible.

According to the official election results, the incumbent president Ahmadinejad won the election by a margin of 63 percent to 34 percent for his main competitor, Mir Hossein Mousavi. This is a difference of approximately 11.3 million votes. Any claim of victory for Mousavi must therefore contain some logically coherent story of how at least 5.65 million votes (one half of the 11.3 million margin) might have been stolen.

This implies looking at the electoral procedures. There were approximately 45,000 polling locations with ballot boxes, not including mobile units. If these ballot boxes were collected by a central authority and taken away to a central location, and counted (or not counted) behind closed doors, this would be consistent with an allegation of massive vote theft.

However, this does not appear to be the case. After searching through thousands of news articles without finding any substantive information on the electoral process, I contacted Seyed Mohammad Marandi, who heads the North American Studies department at the University of Tehran. He described the electoral procedures to me, and together we interviewed, by phone, Sayed Moujtaba Davoodi, a poll worker who participated in the June 12 election in region 13 (of 22 regions) in Tehran. Mr. Daboodi has worked in elections for the past 16 years. The following is from their description of the procedures.

According to their account, there are 14 people working at each polling place, in addition to an observer representing each candidate. Most polling places are schools or mosques; if the polling place is a school then the team of 14 people would include teachers. There are 2-4 representatives of the Guardian Council, and 2 from the local police. After the last votes are cast, the ballots are counted in the presence of the 14 people plus the candidates' representatives. All of them sign five documents that contain the vote totals. One of the documents goes into the ballot box; one stays with the leader of the local election team; and the others go to other levels of the electoral administration, including the Guardian Council and the Interior.

The vote totals are then sent to a local center that also has representatives of the Guardian Council, Interior, and the candidates. They add up the figures from a number of ballot boxes, and then send them to Interior. In this election, the numbers were also sent directly to Interior from the individual polling places, in the presence of the 14-18 witnesses at the ballot box.

Each voter presents identification, and his or her name and information is entered into a computer, and also recorded in writing. The voter's thumbprint is also put on the stub of the ballot. The voter's identification is stamped to prevent multiple voting at different voting places, and there is also a computer and written record of everyone who voted at each polling place.

If this information is near accurate, it would appear that large scale fraud is extremely difficult, if not impossible, without creating an extensive trail of evidence. Indeed, if this election was stolen, there must be tens of thousands of witnesses -- or perhaps hundreds of thousands - to the theft. Yet there are no media accounts of interviews with such witnesses.

Is it possible that, in most of the country, the procedures outlined above - followed in previous elections - were abruptly abandoned, with ballot boxes whisked away before anyone could count them at the precinct level? Again, many of the more than 700,000 people involved in the electoral process would have been witnesses to such a large-scale event. Given the courage that hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated in taking to the streets, we would expect at least some to come forward with information on what happened.

Rostam Pourzal, an Iranian-American human rights campaigner, told me that it is common knowledge in Iran that these are the election procedures and that they were generally followed in this election. Professor Marandi concurred, and added: "There's just no way that any large-scale or systematic fraud could have taken place."

The government has agreed to post the individual ballot box totals on the web. This would provide another opportunity for any of the hundreds of thousands of witnesses to the precinct-level vote count to say that they witnessed a different count, if any did so.

A number of other arguments have been put forward that the vote must have been rigged. Most of them have been refuted. For example, the idea that the results were announced too quickly: How long does it take to count 500-800 ballots at a polling place, with only the presidential candidates on the ballot? It could easily be done within the time that it took, as it was in 2005.

The New York Times' front page story on Tuesday, June 23 begins with this sentence: "Iran's most powerful oversight council announced on Monday that the number of votes recorded in 50 cities exceeded the number of eligible voters there by three million, further tarnishing a presidential election . . ." This was widely interpreted as the government admitting to some three million fraudulent votes.

Here is the Guardian Council's statement: "Candidates campaigns have said that in 80-170 towns and cities, more people have voted than are eligible voters. We have determined, based on preliminary studies, that there are only about 50 such cities or towns. . . . The total number of votes in these cities or towns is something close to three million; therefore, even if we were to throw away all of these votes, it would not change the result."

The letter from the Guardian Council also offers a number of reasons that a city or town can have a vote total that exceeds the number of eligible voters: some towns are weekend or vacation destinations, some voters are commuters, some districts are not demographically distinct entities, and Iranians can vote wherever they want (unlike in the United States, where they must vote at their local polling place). On the face of it, this does not appear implausible. Contrary to press reports, there is no admission from the Iranian government that any of these votes were fraudulent, nor has evidence of such fraud been made public.

The only independent poll we have, from the New America Foundation and conducted three weeks before the election, predicts the result that occurred. And a number of experts have presented plausible explanations for why Ahmadinejad could have won by a large margin.

Does it matter if the election was stolen? Certainly there are grounds for challenging the overall legitimacy of the electoral process, in which the government determines which candidates can compete, and the press and other institutions are constrained.

But from the point of view of promoting more normal relations between the United States and Iran, avoiding a military conflict, and bringing stability to the region, the truth as to the more narrow question of whether the election was procedurally fraudulent may be relevant. If in fact the election was not stolen, and Washington (and Europe) pretend that it was, this can contribute to a worsening of relations. It will give further ammunition to hard-liners in Iran, who are portraying the whole uprising as a conspiracy organized by the West. (It doesn't help that the Obama administration hasn't announced an end to the covert operations that the Bush administration was carrying out within Iran).

More importantly, it will boost hardliners here - including some in the Obama administration - who want to de-legitimize the government of Iran in order to avoid serious negotiations over its nuclear program. That is something that we should avoid, because a failure to seriously pursue negotiations now may lead to war in the future.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C.

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Comments (8)

Shiveh Author Profile Page:

Mark Weisbrot,

Sir! Is it time to retract this article? Or you’ll just let it fade away?

Again: you based your evaluation of the Iranian election on the premise that the Interior ministry tabulated the votes accurately and you also found a promise to publish the individual ballet box totals sufficient to certify this election. I still do not understand why you did not wait to see the actual list of the individual ballet boxes before you submit your approval of the process.

2 weeks have past and the Guardian Consul has declared all election matters concluded without publishing the individual ballet box counts, something a web-master can do in 5 minutes since the actual list exists hidden inside the ministry’s mainframe (hackers welcomed!)

From your article above: “The vote totals are then sent to a local center that also has representatives of the Guardian Council, Interior, and the candidates. They add up the figures from a number of ballot boxes, and then send them to Interior. In this election, the numbers were also sent directly to Interior from the individual polling places, in the presence of the 14-18 witnesses at the ballot box.” And “The government has agreed to post the individual ballot box totals on the web. This would provide another opportunity for any of the hundreds of thousands of witnesses to the precinct-level vote count to say that they witnessed a different count, if any did so.” It is not “another opportunity”, it is the only opportunity for precinct-level witnesses to see if their numbers add up. Local centers have local ballet box totals; the only 2 places that have access to all of the data are the Guardian Council and the Interior ministry.

So, is it time to retract?

Last 2 paragraphs of your article suggest that it is better to accept the outcome of the election and engage the regime than to reject it and witness a possible armed conflict. Perhaps! But not by dismissing those Iranians sitting in prison cells because they wanted their votes to be counted; not by dismissing Neda and hundreds who were killed like her.

robin1231hotmailcom Author Profile Page:

skin color barriers of human races failed in the memorials of Michael jackson, legend king of pop music, so be inter party barriers of parties in democacies, viz GOP_ democratic party conflicts in the nys senate floor, in albany, new york, usa. we the people must learn to erase most barriers in democratic dysfunctions around world. concepts borrowed from the rev dr kamal k roy aka j g jr of USA: see below:

web pages with serch words viz " kamal karna roy " et al for insights issues in Iran conflicts and usa perspectives on IRAN. thanks.

Aprogressiveindependent Author Profile Page:

Interesting opinions and perspective, far more nuanced than anything reported on cable television "news," network "news," or most newspaper articles in this country. However, there seems little possibility of anyone outside of Iran truly knowing whether there was significant voter fraud in the elections there, especially enough to tilt the outcome.

On the other hand, there seems little doubt much of the media in this country, including cable television "news" and "The Washington Post" quickly concluded because there were massive demonstrations the election had to be stolen, which is not really necessarily empirically true.
Only occasionally was there a mention here and there in reporting, of pervasive resentment against the Iranian regime for economic distress much of the population has endured for about twenty or so years. Many of the demonstrators could be venting their frustrations over economic issues as much or more than their anger/concern about voter fraud in the election.

The author alludes to covert operations approved by the Bush-Cheney regime, probably not stopped, by the Obama administration, in Iran to destablize the regime. One would have to think this has been playing a role, even if perhaps a relatively minor role, in stirring up protests there.

Unfortunately, international reporting by most of the media in this country is shallow, lacks historical context and is often influenced by reactionary, neo-con ideology.


Mark Weisbrot rightly points out that "It doesn't help [the case of those who vigorously refute any Iranain charge of outside meddling] that the Obama administration hasn't announced an end to the covert operations that the Bush administration was carrying out within Iran".

On the other hand, for those who support the Iranian Government's claim that the 2009 election has been by far the most competitive since the Revolution of 1979,it is indeed a great cause for rejoicing, not only for the reformist camp in Iran (Mousavi and hs wife, Khatami, Karroubi, Gandji and, above all, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri) but also for all friends and well-wishers of the Iranain people that "the election has brought to light the depth of maturity in Iran's civil society: calm, rational and pragmatic about change".

The answer to the question whether the civil society will be able to keep its hope alive, or whether it will turn into a cynical, demoralised and depoliticised mass lies with how the US, UK and the West reacts in the days and weeks to come. The Khamenei/Ahmadinejad camp has been strengthened and has rightly decided to rebuff the EU's Solana on a speedy resumption of talks on uranium enrichment and Iran's nuclear research programme. The message is: IRAN WILL NOT BE BULLIED, EVEN LESS SO AFTER THE 2009 ELECTIONS. Outsiders have blundered very badly in stubbornly meddling in Iran's internal affairs, despite all the setbacks they have suffered and are stil suffering. These outsiders are Israel, UK, and US operating through Jandollah, MEK and agents resident in Iran, in covert operations schemes that had been set in motion long before the elections and that the Obama administration might have been too busy to defuse and that Israel/UK exerted themselves to keep alive. Iran's Asain neighbours, by contrast, have ben wise in either keeping silent, or, as in the case of China, in warnng the West against interference.

One now hopes that Solana, having been rebuffed, enters into hard-nosed consultations with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, Milliband, Merkel, Sarkozy and Netanyahu to chart a more realistic and humbler strategy to rebuild lost confidence between Iran and the not-yet-repentant inheritors of the neocon legacy. They could also bring Mousavi and the Iranain reformist camp into the less sensitive aspects of their cogitations. That is the only, ONLY way to keep Iran's reform movement alive and to get Mousavi elected during the next elections or maybe even in premature elections within two years in case, by then the ruling bloc shows strong signs that it has exhausted itself with its radical policies. Humanity as a whole, and not only West/Central/East Asia wil benefit from such an enlightened 'grand strategy'.

By contrast, Bolton's call for a strike against Iran, in another opinion piece today in WAPO, is sheer madness. But then, who in a sane state of mind, would have expected anything else from John Bolton?

Shiveh Author Profile Page:

Mark Weisbrot,

I am puzzled! You mention “The government has agreed to post the individual ballot box totals on the web. This would provide another opportunity for any of the hundreds of thousands of witnesses to the precinct-level vote count to say that they witnessed a different count, if any did so.” Knowing that results are computerized and it takes only a few mouse clicks to publish them on the government’s web site, why do you have us believe that a promise is sufficient in this case? The whole logic of your argument is based on the fact that there are many thousands of small vote counts and each count is known by a small group of people. Then although you acknowledge that all of these small vote counts go to a central location in the Interior ministry and the sums are tabulated by a small group of Ahmadinejad appointees, you accept their final numbers along with their promise to post how they reached that summation! Why didn’t you wait to see the actual list of ballet box totals before you put all your credibility behind this affirmation? How long does it take to push those mouse buttons?

You also mentioned that “The only independent poll we have, from the New America Foundation and conducted three weeks before the election, predicts the result that occurred.” I’m sure you have read that poll results. They are very interesting and I’m sure an informed academic like you can reach plausible conclusions from them.

The poll was taken before Guardian council released the names of the four candidates that people could vote for. Hence, at the time we had Ahmadinejad on one side and bunch of so called moderates wanting to oppose him on the other side. This by itself should tell you that the entire conservative pro establishment vote was going to Ahmadinejad but people who wouldn’t vote for him had various people in mind. Also, you are aware that the polling was administered by telephone from outside Iran. Your interest in the Iranian affairs suggests that you are somewhat familiar with the amount of government interference in people’s day to day life there. At least you should know that there are some percentages of Iranians that believe government eavesdrops on their phone conversations especially when the call originates from outside the country. Many among this group will not tell a stranger on the phone who they’ll vote for if the one they plan to vote for is someone other than Ahmadinejad. Some may even tell you what they think the eavesdropper on the phone likes to hear.

The poll you mention puts Ahmadinejad at 34% approval rating among the respondents. If you believe the poll is credible and a good sample of how people voted, shouldn’t you put Ahmadinejad’s numbers in the final vote tally somewhere between 20%-34%? What does a number above 60% tells you?

Citizenofthepost-Americanworld Author Profile Page:

Thank you for your honest efforts at making sense of this situation, Mark Weisbrot. They are very much appreciated.

It happens that I did follow those events very closely. In this case, the fraud has been for the American media to let anybody and everybody insinuate, right from the start and then on 24-7, that the Iranian elections had been stolen, while not providing the slightest proof to that effect, and most of the time without displaying the least understanding of the Iranian electoral process. Needless to say, characteristically, such conduct is an integral part of subversive campaigns to de-legitimize elected candidates and governments.

This has of course serious political consequences. Some of the most far-reaching you mention in you last two paragraphs.

Is it really necessary to emphasize that normally, one does not begin serious negotiations by attempting to de-legitimize one's interlocutors?

How can Iran and Iranians consider seriously, anymore (assuming they ever did...), Obama's claim that he wishes to "engage" Iran?

I am beginning to think that Obama is doing far too much, these days, to make sure he is ultimately remembered as not the most disappointing president of the United States ever, of course, rather as the most disappointing prominent human being of his generation.

Thanks again.


dr_vaman Author Profile Page:

Based on the timeline of all activities in Iran, I think that the election was predecided by the conservative groups and others had no chance in winning. There is no real substance to even think about democracy in Iran. It is being run by thugs like in Zimbabwe and they are ruthless and their ruler Ahmedinijad comes across like a goon. Why have these discussions at all.

smostars1 Author Profile Page:

Everything that Mark Weisbrot describes regarding the election process in Iran is accurate. However he neglects to consider the most obvious way to steal an election: lie about the numbers, pure and simple. Khamenei sensed that the tide had turned after the televised debate one week before the election, and decided to ignore the vote completely, and announced ahmadinejad the winner two hours after the polls closed (his favorite candidate), a highly unusual step because constitutionally he was supposed to wait for 72 hours to congratulate the winner.

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