Mark this down as a prediction: when scholars start writing articles about the recent Iranian presidential elections, this will be the quote they use to begin their articles:
“Statistics provided by the candidates, who claim more than 100 percent of those eligible have cast their ballot in 80 to 170 cities are not accurate — the incident has happened in only 50 cities.” – Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, spokesman for the Guardian Council, as quoted in the NY Times
With the NY Times now reporting that the number of votes affected by regions where the Guardian Council admits that greater than 100% of voters cast ballots could number as many as 3 million (out of a total of 40 million total votes) from 50 cities, it is clear that this was not an isolated incident. So it seems legitimate to begin asking how this could have possibly happened.
To me, the most likely explanation would seem to be an either literal or virtual form of “ballot stuffing”, e.g., Ahmadinejad’s votes being inflated without any of the other candidates having their votes deflated. Hence, if enough stuffing occurred, the totals could eventually begin to surpass the number of eligible voters. In a literal sense, it is easy to understand why one might “stuff” but not “destuff”. Adding extra ballots is easy: you just get hold of extra blank ballots, fill in your candidate, and put them in the ballot box. “Destuffing”, on the other hand, involves getting hold of ballots that were already cast, filtering them to remove only votes for the opposition, and then getting the ballots for your candidate back into the ballot box. Not impossible, but clearly a lot more work than stuffing, especially when time is short.
But if, as my colleagues Bernd Beber and Alex Scacco have suggested (here and here), the ballot stuffing was more “virtual”, with totals just being adjusted at higher levels of aggregation, then the question remains: why would totals ever be adjusted beyond the number of votes counted? Is there something that keeps people who are fixing election results from wanting to adjust opponents’ results downwards as opposed to just revising their own candidate upwards? One explanation could be laziness: you are ordered to get your candidate a certain number of votes, and the easiest way to do that is just change his/her vote total. Another explanation could be fear of a paper trail: if you decrease votes at a reporting stage and the ballots actually exist, then perhaps there is more of a fear of getting caught? I’m interested in others’ thoughts on this matter, especially those who have worked specifically in the area of election monitoring and fraud detection.
All of this, however, bring me to the issue of election boycotts, which have have been used as an important tool of protest in cases where the question of whether elections will be free and fair is in doubt. If, however, it turns out that it is kind of an iron rule of election fraud that it is easier to revise vote totals up then down, then it seems that not boycotting an election serves another role besides allowing your candidate to accumulate votes: it also narrows the window in which the regime can inflate vote totals for its own candidates without getting “caught” by going over the number of actual votes count.
Put another way, one reason why we might now have 50(!)+ cities in Iran where the number of votes cast exceeds the total number of voters is precisely because Iranian citizens participated in the election in such record numbers. Had turnout been a bit lower, there would have been more margin for error in this regard, and perhaps less evidence of vote totals exceeding voters.