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iraq votes 2014
new electronic voter cards result in fraud, privacy fears and unhappy queues

Mustafa Habib
It sounded like new technology with great potential. However for many of the Iraqi voters, who waited in high temperatures for three hours to cast their ballots while the electronic voter ID system malfunctioned,…
1.05.2014  |  Baghdad
One of the voter ID card readers that caused trouble during election day in Iraq.
One of the voter ID card readers that caused trouble during election day in Iraq.

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Nine months before Iraq’s general elections, which took place yesterday, the body tasked with running the voting, decided they would introduce a system of electronic voting. The system was put together by Spanish technology firm, Indra. However, judging by what went on yesterday, the country wasn’t quite ready for such grand plans. Dozens of the electronic voter registration card readers didn’t work properly and this led to overcrowding at polling centres and long queues.

“The device checks the voter’s fingerprint and prevents acts of fraud,” Kulshan Kamal al-Bayati, a member of the board of the Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, told NIQASH. “That will stop the kinds of electoral fraud we saw in previous elections, where people were voting twice for their parties.”

The electronic voter ID cards contained an electronic chip that held the voter’s full name (all three of them), date of birth, family number in the electoral roll, the name of the polling station where the voter should cast his or her vote, the voter’s serial number once at that station and the voter’s province.

There were just over 20 million electronic voter ID cards made – around the same number of Iraqis as are eligible to vote - but only 17.27 million were distributed for one reason or another. That means around 16 percent of the cards never made it to their rightful owners.

Iraqi voters had been told they were required to collect the cards and keep them as carefully as any other official document. They were also told that those who did not have a card would not be allowed to vote.

Early on, the cards which were not distributed indicated some of the problems with the new system. Some of them were issued to deceased persons and others were duplicates. Additionally many members of the security forces, army and police, got two voter ID cards – one as a member of the security forces, who voted two days earlier, and another as a civilian.

One police captain NIQASH spoke to confirmed this – but he said he returned the civilian one. It’s hard to know if everybody did this as there was apparently also a lucrative trade, selling voter ID cards.

At polling stations right around the country, the voter ID cards were supposed to be used with special card reading machines to check that each voter was in the right place and that he or she was eligible to vote. The device also records the location and time at which the voter cast their vote.

Location caused problems for some voters around the country – reports came from out of Iraqi Kurdistan that Iraqi Arabs, who had lived in the semi-autonomous region for years, in some cases, had the electronic ID cards but were not allowed to vote there. Unconfirmed reports on Twitter, posted by journalists working for the Iraqi Oil Report, indicate that this was because the ID cards had been issued in Baghdad and should have been used in a special vote.

To see how long it was taking to cast a vote in Baghdad, NIQASH went to a polling station in the mainly Sunni Muslim neighbourhood of Saidiya, in the southern part of the Iraqi capital. Rather than taking the short time it was suppose to, on average it seemed to be taking every voter about three hours to be able to cast their vote.

The long wait was making many of those in line irritable, especially the elderly in the queue. Standing around in the heat was no fun, everyone complained. However the biggest complaint by far was about the voter card reading machines.

“Many of the card readers crashed,” Fayyan al-Sheikh Ali, head of the Tammuz Organisation for Social Development, which was monitoring the elections, told NIQASH. “It took hours to fix them. Some of them had to be replaced.”

“More than 3,000 Tammuz staff were monitoring elections around the country and many of them recorded delays because of the card reading equipment,” al-Sheikh Ali said. “Card readers didn’t work for some of the time in Baghdad, Basra, Anbar, Najaf and Muthanna, as well as a number of other cities.”

There were other problems observed with the electronic voter ID cards too.

“IHEC made a mistake when they didn’t include the voter’s picture and a fingerprint before the election,” says Adil al-Lami, an elections analyst formerly with IHEC. “They decided only to take a fingerprint on the actual election day. And they didn’t specify which finger.”

Every human fingerprint is different, even on the same hand. So this means that anyone can go into a polling station and, if they have ten cards, vote ten times using ten different fingers. That isn’t as far beyond reality as one might expect.

At a press conference held by IHEC on election day, the head of IHEC’s administration, Miqdad al-Sharifi, told reporters that a person had been arrested carrying 45 voter ID cards.

And al-Sharifi also admitted that there had been technical problems with the scanning devices.

“These were caused by misuse by voters or by the staff at polling centres,” he explained. But al-Sharifi said that these problems had been solved by special technical teams employed to do exactly this.

And this being Iraq, there are bound to be more issues arising from the use of the new electronic devices. In a country where your political affiliations can get you killed, voters have already raised their own fears about privacy and maintaining the secrecy of their ballot.