From Sidney and Detroit to London and Beirut, Iraq’s voter-registration process for eligible voters who live outside Iraq, which ended Tuesday, was disappointing. Only 280,303 people out of the more than one million estimated to be eligible registered in the 14 countries participating in the out-of-country voting program.
In the United States, a mere 25,946 registered, a tenth of what was expected. Here the low turnout is attributable to serious mistakes made by the U.N.-appointed International Organization for Migration’s Out-of-Country Voting office (IOM-OCV), which officially pronounced it was “satisfied” with the registration results. The blunders were ultimately the result of indifference and arrogance, since they occurred despite repeated warnings from expatriate Iraqis as well as appeals sent by Senator Rick Santorum, Rep. Frank Wolf, twelve members of California’s delegation to Congress, and others in the preceding weeks. There is still time to correct the problem, however, and to get eligible voters to the polls by allowing new registration during the voting process and relocating polls to populous areas.
Those most hurt by the IOM’s blunders are Iraqi Christians, since they constitute the largest segment of the Iraqi-American population. Beginning with the collapse of Ottoman rule, systematic harassment and outright persecution have driven Iraq’s indigenous Christian community of Assyrian Chaldean Syriacs (called ChaldoAssyrians in Iraq’s transitional administrative law) to the United States and other countries. In recent decades, Saddam’s tyranny pushed those from Arab and Kurdish groups to flee. Accounting for 80 to 85 percent of Iraqis in the U.S., ChaldoAssyrian groups pleaded with the IOM-OCV for months to locate polling stations in more places to facilitate voter turnout from their communities, as well as from the others. Instead, the IOM-OCV located the polls according to U.S. census data for the smaller groups of Iraqi Arab and Kurdish populations. As ChaldoAssyrian groups continuously pointed out, the American census data is flawed because surveys for Assyrian Chaldean Syriac people do not differentiate between those from Iraq and those from Turkey, Iran, Syria, and elsewhere.
The IOM-OCV rejected a polling place for San Diego, where an estimated 25,000 of 30,000 Iraqi expatriates are ChaldoAssyrians. The same is true for Phoenix and the Modesto/Turlock area in California, where tens of thousands more reside. Why the office felt the need to limit the U.S. polling sites is a mystery; the IOM-OCV established more polling sites in Iran than in the United States, which is six times bigger.
The continued survival of the indigenous people of Iraq may well depend on the new assembly, which will be elected in Sunday’s voting, and the constitution it forms. Most ChaldoAssyrian Iraqis in the American diaspora were disenfranchised from the vote. This is particularly ironic since, as American taxpayers, they are funding the election.
It is unclear why IOM-OCV ignored the information the ChaldoAssyrian community provided and rejected its petitions over the many weeks before voter registration even began. I spoke with Roger Bryant, head of U.S. voting for IOM-OCV weeks ago. He admitted hearing over and over again from groups throughout California and Michigan, but told me simply it was “too late.” Nevertheless, since that call he made numerous other last-minute changes, such as closing two original Detroit voting locations, moving one polling place from Los Angeles to Orange County, and deciding during the week of registration to extend the registration period for two days. Except for Chicago, there are no voting locations for Iraqi ChaldoAssyrian communities similar to the Nashville location serving 4,000 mainly Kurdish expatriates or the New Carrolton, Md., site where 2,048 Kurdish and Arab voters registered. The beleaguered Iraqi ChaldoAsyrian Christians are once again being pushed aside in favor of the dominant Iraqi groups, this time right here in the United States.
There is no sense pretending that the out-of-country turnout of this segment of the Iraqi population was anything but anemic. Since the IOM-OCV has been making up the polling rules as it goes along, it is not too late to help remedy the stunningly low registration in the U.S. by allowing simultaneous registration and voting here just as is occurring within Iraq proper, and by establishing more accessible polling sites. We should not give up the democratic process to terrorist threats–or to bureaucratic indifference.
–James Y. Rayis is an international lawyer based in Atlanta and former chairman of the international law section of the state bar of Georgia. He serves as vice-chair of the ChaldoAssyrian American Advocacy Council.