Exit Polling Iran’s Northern Neighbor: It’s Not The Voting, It’s The Counting

In November 2005, I was part of a team that conducted an exit poll for the Parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan (Warren Mitofsky and I wrote about our “Adventure in Baku” shortly thereafter.) It became clear to us on election night after the polls had closed that the Azeri authorities, who had originally seemed to be promoting a fair and open election with three separate exit polling operations to help verify the vote, had abruptly changed their minds once the vote counting had begun in order to make sure that certain opposition party candidates for parliament did not end up winning the official vote. In Thomas Friedman’s op-ed column in yesterday New York Times, he quotes the playwright Tom Stoppard as saying that democracy is not the voting, “it’s the counting.” That is definitely true in Iran and I can also say that it was definitely true in the election I observed in Iran’s neighbor, Azerbaijan.
Over the past 10 days, much has been posted on the circumstantial statistical evidence of electoral fraud in the results published by the Iranian Electoral Commission. Pollster.com and fivethirtyeight.com have been providing an excellent summary of links to detailed statistical analyses of the suspicious nature of the election returns, including articles from the University of Michigan, Chatham House, Cornell, Princeton, and Juan Cole of the Global Americana Institute. However, all of this statistical evidence will remain circumstantial until the Iranian government provides more detailed results by polling location (if they ever do), or if any eyewitness accounts of how the electoral fraud was perpetrated become public, as they did in Ukraine in 2004.
Let me relate what I observed in Azerbaijan in 2005, and speculate on how similar tactics may have been used by the Iranian election officials this year. Up to and including election day in Azerbaijan, the electoral commission was very open with us and our exit polling team. We were given full access to the voter lists at each polling location and full access for our interviewers at our more than one thousand sample precincts. Warren and I even paid surprise visits to a half dozen polling locations during the day and were allowed to observe the voting process as well as talk with citizens who had just voted. The process seemed open and above board. Citizens marked their paper ballots in private, folded them up and placed them in clear plastic ballot boxes so that public observers could see that the ballots had been cast.
The questionable activity occurred once the voting ended and those ballot boxes were spirited away to the central counting locations. We had been promised reports of the actual vote returns from each polling location as soon as they had been counted that evening. We received reports from the first 200 to 300 polling locations and these reports basically matched what we had found in the exit poll. Suddenly, the reports stopped, and our contact at the electoral commission (who had been very cooperative up to that point) stopped answering our phone calls. Finally, in the middle of the night, we were told that the vote returns by polling location would no longer be available. The press conference that the government had set up for us to announce our results was attended by just one journalist, from the official state news agency. When we showed our client the results that we were going to post on the internet, we were told that posting those results would cause civil unrest. We stayed in Baku for one more day following the election and the mood of the entire town had become tense. I attended a packed press conference where U.S. and European observers reported on suspicious activity by the electoral commission. Warren and I boarded our plane the next day and posted the full exit poll results on the Internet as soon as our plane left Azerbaijan air space.
There were indeed protests on the streets of Baku. None were as violent as the ones we have seen in Tehran, but hundreds of thousands participated and dozens were arrested. The Electoral Commission finally agreed to investigate the results and threw out the returns from 108 polling locations in 14 parliamentary districts, all districts in which the exit polls showed opposition candidates winning but the official returns showed supporters of the government winning. Eventually, new elections in those districts were scheduled, but the opposition boycotted the re-election and the protests died down.
There seem to be many similarities between our first-hand experiences with the election in Azerbaijan, and the election just held in Iran. First, the election and the voting itself, which seemed open and fair at the time, turned out to be mostly for show. Once the initial results in Azerbaijan showed opposition candidates winning in certain districts, the electoral commission took steps to make sure the official results matched what the government desired, which is probably what happened in Iran. Basically, the authorities were fine with an open and seemingly fair election as long as their guy won. Once that outcome became less certain, procedures were probably put in place to make sure the official results matched what the government desired. The fraud is probably not universal, but, as in Azerbaijan, concentrated in the areas where the opposition was doing better than expected. This would explain much of the statistical evidence showing Ahmadinejad doing well in the official vote returns from provinces and towns where the reformist candidates did well in the 2005 election.
The electoral contest in Azerbaijan was between two groups of former Soviet authorities competing for power in a post-Soviet world. The current electoral contest in Iran is between two groups competing for power within the framework of an Islamic Republic. While supported by reformists and protestors in the streets, Mousavi is a former Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic and one of his main supporters is Rafsanjani, a former two-term president. This is basically a battle between two factions where the stakes have been raised because one side changed the rules in the middle of the game.
Now that there have been protests in the streets, the Iranian government is responding in a similar fashion to how the Azerbaijan government responded in 2005. The Iranian government today admitted that there are at least 50 towns where more votes were counted than people who actually voted. As in Azerbaijan, this will probably lead to some sort of admission of small voting irregularities, but not enough to have affected the outcome. The government in Azerbaijan in 2005 got away with only re-doing elections in 14 of the 125 parliamentary districts because there was little pressure from the United States, Russia and the European Union, all of which feared that any further disturbances in Azerbaijan would have risked the continuing supply of oil through the pipelines to the West.
My guess is that in Iran there will be considerably more external pressure, and government attempts to admit to only partial electoral fraud will not ease the situation. The stakes of this electoral game have been raised too high for a compromise solution.

2 replies
  1. Tom Webster
    Tom Webster says:

    We believe they are just a few weeks away–this release doesn’t come from us, so we can’t say exactly when.


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