Iraq Overseas Voting: A Bad Idea, Poorly Executed

Less than 26,000 Iraqi Americans registered to vote for the Iraqi elections. An even smaller number were expected to actually vote.

These numbers are disappointing to election organizers who had anticipated a significantly higher turnout. Just three weeks ago, on my US-based television program, election officials from the International Organization for Migration were predicting that over one half of what they estimated to be 240,000 eligible Iraqi Americans would participate in the January 30 vote. At the time I assumed that number was inflated and felt that organizers were setting themselves up for defeat.

There is no way to put a positive spin on a 10% turnout. But there is a way to explain it. The entire effort to bring overseas Iraqi voting to the US was a bad idea, and the execution of the program was worse.

Let me explain, first, why it was a bad idea.

Of the estimated 350,000 Iraqi Americans, less than one-third are immigrants from Iraq. Most are either children of immigrants or second generation Americans. Like immigrants from other Arab countries, many of these Iraqi Americans are part of the American success story. They are established in the business and professional life of the United States.

Thousands of Iraqi businessmen and women in California and Michigan are organized into powerful business associations. Their support is actively sought by candidates for public office and their concerns are heard in the halls of power.

Iraqi Americans have held elected office on the state and local level and they are active leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

These Iraqi Americans just had their election on November 2, 2004, and they voted, ran for office, and participated on all levels. In fact, a top campaign official in the winning Senate campaign of Illinois Democrat Barack Obama, was an Iraqi American political professional.

These Iraqi Americans are deeply committed to the future of Iraq. They regularly meet with the Administration and their elected officials to voice their concerns. They care about US policy towards Iraq and want it to be better. But vote in Iraq’s elections? That’s another story.

Many Iraqi Americans interviewed in the past several weeks are closely following events in Iraq, but don’t feel that, as Americans, they had a right to elect the future leader of that country.

This is not to say that all Iraqi Americans feel this way. There are many who came to the US as forced exiles, not willing immigrants. There are thousands of Kurds and Shi’a refugees who fled persecution and thousands more of Chaldeans, Assyrians, and other opponents of the regime who left the country fearing for their lives. They are exiles who hope to return to their country. They have a direct stake in the country and, therefore, a stake in the election.

But to describe all Iraqi Americans as exiles and a diaspora is not only inaccurate, it does fundamental damage to the American experience. The US is not a nation of dual-loyalty exiles. Iraqi Americans, Lebanese Americans, and Egyptian Americans, like Polish Americans, Irish Americans, and Greek Americans all care about the countries from which they or their parents originated. But they are Americans and when they vote, they vote in US elections.

If extending overseas voting to the children of all Iraqi immigrants was a bad idea that was destined to result in a poor turnout, than the execution of this program was even worse making it difficult for those who wanted to vote to do so.

The problems were many and not the fault of the group that was commissioned to organize and implement the election.

First and foremost was the fact that the US organizers were not authorized to begin until mid-November 2004. Despite knowing for months that the election would be held on January, 30, 2005, and would involve overseas voting, the very late start meant that an enormous effort to reach out to hundreds of thousands of potential voters in fifty states had to be accomplished in a short two-month period.

Additional difficulties occurred as a result of the fact that the organizers were bound by the requirements imposed by the Iraqi election commission. Overseas voters were required to register a week before they could vote and had to appear in person to prove either their Iraqi citizenship or the citizenship of their father. Budget constraints and the certification requirements meant that the organizers had to settle on establishing five US cities as voting and registration center. The chosen cities were: Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, and Washington DC.

Established procedures required that potential voters had to register at one of the sites between January 17 and January 25. As a result many Iraqi Americans complained that they would have to travel as much as 800 miles each way twice in two weeks. This presented an insurmountable hardship to many.

And then there is the issue of language. Since the election commission required that the ballots be printed in Iraq’s two official languages, Arabic and Kurdish, many first generation Chaldeans and Assyrians (who form the largest groups of Iraqi Americans) were discouraged from participating because they lacked fluency in either language.

And finally, the big questions: Was this a legitimate election? What was the election about? And who was running? While Iraqis in their country may have answers to these questions (although some recent polling suggests that many Iraqis, in Iraq, are confused, conflicted, or simply unable to provide answers) too many Iraqi Americans have too little access to information to make an informed vote.

Unfortunately, this experiment in overseas voting fared only somewhat better, with more than 260,000 registering to vote in 14 countries-roughly one-fifth of the estimated turnout. Given the importance that many Iraqis place in electing a truly representative government, their aspirations would have been better served had the entire enterprise been better conceived and better executed.