Articles and Analysis


Roundup: Analyses of Fraud in Iran

Topics: Fraud , Iran

In addition to the turmoil and tragedy in Iran over the weekend, there were two new notable analyses of the official turnout, plus one bizarre concession by the ruling Guardian Council. Let's start with a review of the analyses:

  • Last week, we pointed to an analysis (pdf) by American political scientist Walter Mebane (explained further here). He used the county and city-level vote data from the two rounds of Iran's 2005 election to try to model the 2009 result. The underlying idea is to see whether the town-by-town variation in Ahmadenijad's vote in 2005 predicts the town-by-town variation in 2009. He found that his model did not "describe" the vote well in 192 of 320 towns and that, in 172 of those, Ahmadenijad's vote looks suspiciously high. [Update: Mebane has updated his analysis based on new ballot box data for 23 of 30 provinces showing "evidence of significant distortions in the vote counts not only for Karroubi and Rezaei but also for Ahmadinejad" - more here].
  • Over the weekend, Alex Scacco and Bernd Beber, graduate students at Columbia University,** published analyses in the last two digits in reported 2009 vote totals, on the theory that the distribution of these digits should be totally random. The found suspicious patterns suggestive of fraud in the provincial-level data but not in what they describe as county-level data. Their theory is that provincial level data were fabricated and that the "leading digits" of the county-level data subsequently manipulated to match fraudulent provincial totals (which would have required minimal tampering with the last two digits of most counties -- R analysis code and data here, via Monkey Cage).
  • Yesterday, the British think-tank Chatham House published an analysis of the provincial level data co-authored by academics at the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews. They found irregularities in turnout -- including two provinces showing "a turnout of over 100%" -- and patterns they found implausible in the supposedly new votes cast for Ahmadenijad in 2009.   Note that while the Mebane and Scacco-Beber analyses were mostly statistical, the Chatam House analysis is more steeped in the authors' expertise in recent Iranian political history.

But perhaps most telling was this statement yesterday from the Iran's ruling Guardian Council yesterday as published by Iranian state television:

Iran's Guardian Council has suggested that the number of votes collected in 50 cities surpass the number of people eligible to cast ballot in those areas.

The council's Spokesman Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, who was speaking on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Channel 2 on Sunday, made the remarks in response to complaints filed by Mohsen Rezaei -- a defeated candidate in the June 12 Presidential election.

"Statistics provided by the candidates, who claim more than 100% of those eligible have cast their ballot in 80-170 cities are not accurate -- the incident has happened in only 50 cities," Kadkhodaei said.

Kadkhodaei further explained that the voter turnout of above 100% in some cities is a normal phenomenon because there is no legal limitation for people to vote for the presidential elections in another city or province to which people often travel or commute.

To put this in perspective, that's 50 of over 300 cities in which turnout exceeded 100% of the eligible voters. So the statement truly pushes the boundaries of "spin," or as Nate Silver puts it, "Worst. Damage Control. Ever." Nate says they are admitting to "some fraud" just not "11 million votes worth of fraud," though I'm not sure I would go that far. Kadkhodaei claims that the pattern is a "normal phenomenon," since it is legal for Iranian's to vote outside their home provinces. Still, it's quite a stretch.

Consider the update from the Chatam House authors (see p. 2) that their "results are not significantly affected" by the Guardian Council statement:

Whilst it is possible for large numbers of voters to cast their ballots outside their home district (one of 366), the proportion of people who would have cast their votes outside their home province is much smaller, as the 30 provinces are too large for effective commuting across borders. In Yazd, for example, where turnout was above 100% at provincial level, there are no significant population centres near provincial boundaries.

Note also that they found, separately, that the increase in turnout in 2009 "results in substantially less variation in turnout between provinces, with the standard deviation amongst provincial turnouts falling by just over 23% since 2005." So the Guardian Council's argument is that out-of-province voting was great enough to cause turnout beyond 100% of eligibility in 50 towns and 2 provinces, yet the Chatham House analysis shows less variability across provinces than in 2005. That's quite a pattern.

Update: Josh Tucker has more on the Kadkhodaei statement.

**The original version of this post misstated Scacco and Beber's academic affiliation - see the comment from Andrew Therriault.


Andrew Therriault:


Alex and Bernd are actually graduate students at Columbia, who will be Assistant Professors here at NYU next fall. So be sure to send any credit or criticism for their work uptown where it belongs!




I hate to admit it, but there were a few times in school where I cheated.

Math books often had the answers to the odd problems in the back of the book (and the student solution manuals would give the details on how to get to those answers for the odd problems).

When I was pressed for time, I would sometimes cheat by using those answers/solutions.

But I would not just copy them all verbatim. I would intentionally include errors/changes, and make sure not to get all of the problems right.

When you are cheating, you have two goals. The first goal is to give yourself an edge over what the results would have been if you didn't cheat (otherwise there is no point in taking the risks involved in cheating). The second goal is to not get caught; the results of your cheating have to be believable.

Getting every answer right would have made my cheating less believable. Going for too great a grade would be inviting suspicion and getting caught.

I am not surprised that the election was rigged. But I do have to say that I am perplexed as to why it was rigged so poorly.

In this case if I were them, and wanting to rig the election, the goal (improvement over the result of not cheating) would have been to give myself over 50% of the vote, which would have given them a victory without having a second round of voting.

The next question would have been what would have been believable. In that case, I wouldn't want 50%, because being that close may also not be so believable (and in the case of recounting in some limited areas to look legitimate may cause problems). I would certainly not have gone for anything over 60%, since that would not have been believable either.

I probably would have gone for 52-53%. That would have been a definite (first round) victory, beyond what a few local recounts might change, but close enough that most people (including supporters of the opposition) would think that the opposition just didn't quite have enough steam to stop me. With it being that close, if there are allegations of vote rigging, then I would just cast it as the opposition trying to unfairly swing the election their way.

Anyway, that leaves the question of why it was rigged so poorly.

Was it just complete incompetance?

Was the rigging done in a predefined technical way (determining beforehand that 90% of candidate X's vote will be added to candidate Y's vote tally). Something like this could certainly have had the potential to give some strange numbers, but it seems like most of the results are suggesting that the numbers were altered (or made up) by a more manual process.

If it was done manually, and assuming it was not rigged poorly out of incompetence, then could it have been rigged poorly on purpose?

Perhaps to give them time to work on making nukes, in a situation where Israel would be universally condemned for attacking Iran? Or perhaps to better identify who might not be completely loyal to the regime in order to eliminate them (and give the regime even greater control over Iran)?

These may seem like crazy ideas, but you still have to wonder as to just why it was rigged so poorly.


Marijke Koeman:

An intriguing question indeed: why was the election rigging done so poorly? I can only come up with one answer.

I'm not a pollster, know little about statistics. But I know how the mood in Iran changed early June, when the TV debates between the presidential candidates took place.
To us debates on TV are normal, but this was a first in Iran.
The candidates didn't hold back. They talked of corruption, dishonesty, the wealth of some clerics: things everybody talked about at home were suddenly said openly. And all of a sudden election rallies became huge and cheerful. Ahmadinejad was heralded for standing up for the poor people, Mousavi was cheered for - among other things - campaigning with his wife (who had been attacked during the debate with Mousavi by Ahmadinejad).

This happened only two weeks before the ballot. Most polls had already been concluded.

Two things struck me when all was over.
1. The outcome was almost similar to the outcome of a poll done by an American organisation (concluded on May 20th). How convenient...
2. The absence of a spontaneous celebration in the streets of Tehran by Ahmadinejad supporters, after the news that he had won with a landslide. As if they didn't believe it either.

Could it be because it was done in a hurry?



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