Unusually High Vote Totals Prompt Review Of Iraq Referendum

Some provinces reporting up to 99 percent of ballots approve the new constitution.

Not in his wildest dreams could President Bush have hoped for democracy to take hold this hard and fast in Iraq. Which is exactly why Iraqi election officials are investigating some unusually high vote totals in 12 Shiite and Kurdish provinces where as many as 99 percent of eligible voters reportedly cast ballots in favor of Iraq's new constitution.

The investigation could call into question the results of the referendum held on Saturday, according to a report by The New York Times. The Independent Election Commission of Iraq released a statement Monday night that said the results of the referendum would be delayed a few days as election workers had to "recheck, compare and audit" the results because of the high number of "yes" votes (see "Iraq Charter Vote Goes Smoothly; Constitution Likely To Pass"). The commission did not suggest that there was voter fraud involved, but that international voting standards require voting procedures to be re-examined whenever a candidate or ballot question receives more than 90 percent of the vote.

"When you find consistently very, very high numbers, then that is cause for further checking," a commission official said. "Anything over 90 percent either way usually leads to further investigation." The delayed vote-counting process could potentially push back the planned December 15 elections for a full-term parliament.

The votes in question came from 12 provinces that were majority Shiite and Kurdish, the two leading tribal factions in the country, which had strongly supported the document. The Times questioned why Shiite or Kurdish leaders would resort to fraud, given that their groups make up 80 percent of Iraq's population and could have easily won the referendum with just a fraction of votes from the minority Sunni areas.

The Associated Press reported that among the Sunni fraud allegations are reports that police took ballot boxes from heavily "no" districts, and that some "yes" areas had more votes than registered voters.

In a country that was already fiercely divided going into the referendum, with Sunnis — many loyal to deposed leader Saddam Hussein — unhappy with several of the power-sharing provisions in the document, the allegations of possible fraud could add fuel to the tensions and drive more Sunnis to join the insurgency, according to the Times.

Given the suggestion of fraud, Sunni leader Mishaan al-Jubouri said he favored a thorough investigation. He claimed that the Shiite and Kurdish political parties in power "were filling out forms and stuffing them into boxes. ... They were also voting in the names of those who hadn't come to vote." He also claimed that monitors in several predominantly Shiite southern provinces such as Najaf and Karbala initially reported modest voter turnout, but after the polls closed they released figures that seemed very high. The Times could not verify al-Jubouri's allegations.

In an attempt to head off the possibility of fraud or intimidation at the polls, the election commission deployed 57,000 election observers drawn from local aid groups and 120 representatives of political parties. But Kurdish National Assembly member Mahmood Othaman said the monitors were largely partisan.

None of the 12 provinces that are getting a closer look had Sunni majorities, according to officials, despite reports of similarly lopsided votes against the constitution in those areas. Three of the 18 provinces in the country have a Sunni majority. In total, 64 percent of registered voters, about 10 million Iraqis, cast ballots in the referendum, and preliminary results show that the constitution appears to have been approved by about 65 percent of voters.

In the shadow of the country's budding democracy is the dark specter of its past, as Hussein and seven senior members of his regime will go on trial Wednesday to face charges that they ordered the 1982 killings of almost 150 people from the mainly Shiite town of Dujail after a failed assassination attempt on the country's former dictator (see "Saddam Hussein Reportedly Confesses To Ordering Executions").

The trial is only expected to take a few weeks. If convicted, Hussein and his co-defendants could face the death penalty.