As an Iraqi citizen, I voted here in the United States in both of Iraq’s democratic parliamentary elections. Below, I have shared my reflections on both voting experiences.
In December 2005, I voted in an Iraqi election for the first time since Saddam Hussein was deposed by the Coalition in 2003. My family and I had left Iraq well before the election, but the Iraqi authorities set up procedures for Iraqis living in certain countries, including the United States, to vote in the elections. Rather than send in an absentee ballot through the mail, the procedures for Iraqis living abroad required them to physically go to a local polling place to cast their ballots.
Iraqis living in the Washington, DC area were very excited in the run-up to the 2005 election, because for the first time they would get a chance to have a say in who should run the country without fear of retaliation. The polling location was in New Carrolton, Maryland, an inconvenient location for people who live in Washington, DC or northern Virginia. As a result, many local Iraqis tried to organize groups of people to travel together to ensure that as many Iraqis as possible could get to the polls.
I had some mixed feelings about the voting process in the 2005 election. As we arrived at the polling place, we heard Kurdish music playing and saw some young Kurdish men dancing the Kurdish debka outside the building – I felt at home. However, I also could not help but notice that they were prominently flying the Kurdistan flag not the Iraqi flag; as an Iraqi, I would have preferred to see the Iraqi flag displayed more prominently to signal that the elections were for all Iraqis, not just the Kurds. Nonetheless, the music and the smiling faces of the many Iraqis present reassured me.
Once we entered the polling place, it became apparent that the preparation for the election left something to be desired. There was a general lack of professionalism on the part of those staffing the polling site. In addition, there was no sort of guide to the candidates and the lists that they represented. Prior to the elections, the major Iraqi political parties chose to organize themselves into coalitions of parties, which Iraqis refer to as lists, rather than run as individual parties. My Iraqi friends and I had discussed the different candidates who were running for office, but we were not very familiar with the various lists.
In the end, I was glad that I had a chance to exercise my right to vote, but I could not help but wish that the process had gone more smoothly.
The 2010 election provided me another chance to help choose who would run Iraq, as once again the Iraqi High Electoral Committee (IHEC) allowed for Iraqis living abroad to vote. This time, a polling location was set up at a hotel near the Ballston Metro stop in Arlington. Outside the hotel, we saw a van decorated with posters of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and playing Kurdish music. However, the van prominently displayed a Kurdish flag but not the Iraqi one.
Once we got inside the hotel, the first thing that stood out to me was how long the line of people waiting to vote was. This was the most Iraqis I had seen together in one place since I left Iraq.
One of the big improvements in this voting experience over the previous one in 2005 was that, despite my misgivings about the Kurdish flag flying on the van outside of the hotel, the polling place had much more of an Iraqi feel to it. All of those present spoke Iraqi Arabic, even the Kurds and Assyrians. Though there were no Iraqi flags and no Iraqi music playing within the polling location, which I thought would have been appropriate for such an important national event, there were also no flags, banners, or signs particular to specific ethnicities, sects, or political organizations, like the Kurdish flag, which helped reinforce the feeling that this was an important event for all Iraqis.
This voting process was much better organized than that of the 2005 election. There were five observers present in the room and there were about ten other observers scattered throughout the polling location. One IHEC member checked the voters’ IDs, as voters were required to have Iraqi identification documents to prove that they were Iraqi nationals and therefore eligible to vote.
The another IHEC member later handed each voter a poster-size ballot paper stamped on the back and a thick, nicely-printed booklet with the names of all the candidates, organized by province and by list. This was a major improvement over the 2005 election, which had no guide to the candidates and the lists.
After ticking the list and the number of the candidate, I folded the paper again, placed in it in the small envelop then the larger one, and came out of the booth. To my surprise, one of the members of the IHEC who was overseeing the voters at the three booths said that I should not have done that: “The observer and the IHEC member at the ballot box has to check your paper to see if it is the one stamped or not.” Fear of forgery. The IHEC member brought me two fresh envelopes and I checked that they had my original ordinal voting number and Baghdad as my hometown, then showed it to the observer, who made me dip my index finger in a small jar of purple ink, then she folded the envelopes and, with the help of the IHEC member, pushed it down the ballot box. My voter number was 625 and the big ballot box was full to the brim when they pushed my ballot inside.
Going to vote, I had been worried about my negative voting experience in 2005, but when I left with my purple fingertip, I felt very proud of the huge strides Iraqis have taken in the last 5 years.