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On Proving Vote Fraud in Iran

Topics: Iran

Today's Washington Post does a real service with its front page story by Glenn Kessler and Jon Cohen that reviews both the plentiful "signs of fraud" in last week's disputed election in Iran, and the frustrating lack of "hard evidence" to substantiate it. The key paragraph:

There are many signs of manipulation or outright fraud in Iran's disputed election results, according to pollsters and election experts, but the case for a rigged outcome is far from ironclad, making it difficult for the United States and other Western powers to denounce the results as unacceptable. Indeed, there is also evidence that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent president deeply disliked in the West for his promotion of Iran's nuclear program and his anti-Israeli rhetoric, simply won a commanding victory.

The Kessler/Cohen piece is one of the most thorough reviews of what we know and, unfortunately, what we cannot know about whether vote fraud occurred in Iran. The article reviews the inconclusive Terror Free Tomorrow/New America Foundation poll (that Cohen critiqued yesterday) and also goes into more detail on the various "suspicious indicators," including:

  • The conflicting claims and counterclaims on election night, and the "relatively consistent" margin for Ahmadinejad as official results were reported.
  • The suspicion that "so many ballots were said to have been counted so quickly."

  • The apparent secrecy surrounding tallies from individual polling stations and lack of vetting by representatives of opposition candidates.
  • The questionable pattern of regional results, including surprisingly poor performances by opposition candidates Mousavi and Karroubi in their home provinces.

The bottom line?

"There are suspicious elements here, but there's no solid evidence of fraud," said Walter R. Mebane Jr., a University of Michigan professor of political science and statistics and an expert on detecting electoral fraud.

Separately, as noted by Andrew Sullivan via the blog Stochastic Democracy, Mebane has produced a brief report with the details behind his conclusions. He compares "district level vote counts" and turnout in 2005 to predict support for Ahmedinejad in 2009. He reports that his model works well for most districts, but those deviations from the model he observed were in Ahmedinejad's favor [Correction: Both Stochastic Democracy and I misread Mebane. The the outliers from Mebane's model show places where Ahmadinejad's vote share is smaller than expected, not larger]. Mebane's conclusion:

In general, combining the 2005 and 2009 data conveys the impression that a substantial core of the 2009 results reflected natural political processes. In 2009 Ahmadinejad tended to do best in towns where his support in 2005 was highest, and he tended to do worst in towns where turnout surged the most. These natural aspects of the election results stand in contrast to the unusual pattern in which all of the notable discrepancies between the support Ahmadinejad actually received and the support the model predicts are always negative. This pattern needs to be explained before one can have confidence that natural election processes were not supplemented with artificial manipulations. Also remaining is the need to see data at lower levels of aggregation and in general more transparency about how the election was conducted.

[Update:  Mebane subsequently updated his analysis with further data and found "moderately strong support" for fraud].

It is worth remembering that truly "solid evidence" is hard to come by given the closed nature of both the Iranian election and its government. Consider the proof offered in the preliminary report issued on the disputed Ukranian election in 2004 by the most authoritative monitor, the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). They found "significant shortcomings" in the Ukraine election based on eyewitness testimony and physical evidence gathered by the 4,000 international observers, plus 10,000 more from within Ukraine deployed as accredited journalists. As far as I know, no such independent monitoring occurred in Iran.

It is also worth asking whether, at a certain level, we need to search for "proof" of fraud in the patterns of official vote reports given the graphic and indisputable evidence on display over the last few days in Iran of a ruthless, violent suppression of fundamental human rights. View this extremely disturbing video that Sullivan linked to (if you can bear it) of black-masked police mercilessly beating a defenseless protester, at one point apparently attempting to break his bones while shouting to the crowd, "watch this."** Evidence of fascism may not equate to evidence of vote fraud, but...does it matter?

**Update: The video apparently dates back two years, although it's probably worth asking the same question. Does it matter?  Watch Sullivan's blog for similar video from the last few days.   

 

Comments
RS:

Unfortunately, hard evidence does matter, for this very reason:
"making it difficult for the United States and other Western powers to denounce the results as unacceptable"
I'd expand that to include other middle-eastern countries, which might have greater influence on Iran's rulers than the Great Satan. As NIAC (the National Iranian American Council) points out, Iran is allergic to Western meddling.

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