Back Away from Early Estimates of Iraqi Voter
Turnout Everyone is
delighted that so many Iraqis went to the polls
on Sunday, but do the two turnout numbers
routinely cited by the press -- 8 million and
57% -- have any basis in reality? And was the
outpouring of voters in Sunni areas really
(February 02, 2005) --
course, is thrilled that so many Iraqis turned
out to vote, in the face of threats and
intimidation, on Sunday. But in hailing, and at
times gushing, over the turnout, has the
American media (as it did two years ago in the
hyping of Saddam's WMDs) forgotten core
journalistic principles in regard to
fact-checking and weighing partisan assertions?
It appears so. For
days, the press repeated, as gospel, assertions
offered by an election official that 8 million
Iraqis went to the polls on Sunday, an
impressive 57% turnout rate. I questioned those
figures as early as last Sunday, and offered the
detailed analysis below on Wednesday. Finally,
on Thursday night, John F. Burns and Dexter
Filkins of The New York Times reported that
Iraqi election officials have quietly
"backtracked, saying that the 8 million estimate
had been reached hastily on the basis of
telephone reports from polling stations across
the country and that the figure could change."
Then, in Friday's
paper, Burns and Filkins noted that one election
commision official was "evasive about the
turnout, implying it might end up significantly
lower than the initial estimate." They quoted
this official, Safwat Radhid, exclaiming: "Only
God Almighty knows the final turnout now." They
revealed that the announcement of a turnout
number, expected to be released this weekend,
has been put off for a week, due to the
"complex" tabulation system.
I'll be delighted if that figure,
when it is officially announced, exceeds the
dubious numbers already enshrined by much of the
media. But don't be surprised if it falls a bit
short. The point is: Nobody knows, and reporters
and pundits should have never acted like they
did know when they stated, flatly, that 8
million Iraqis voted and that this represents a
turnout rate of about 57%.
Carl Bialik, who writes the Numbers
Guy column for Wall Street Journal Online, calls
this "a great question ... how the journalists
can know these numbers -- when so many of them
aren't able to venture out all over that
country." Speaking to E&P on Wednesday,
Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post -- one of
the few mainstream journalists to raise
questions about the turnout percentage --
referred to the "fuzzy math" at the heart of it.
Those with long
memories may recall the downward-adjusted
turnout numbers that followed violence-plagued
elections in South Vietnam in 1967 and in El
Salvador in 1984.
And one thing we now know for sure:
the early media blather about a "strong" Sunni
turnout has proven false. Adding a dose of
reality, The Associated Press on Wednesday cited
a Western diplomat who declared that turnout
appeared to have been "quite low" in Iraq's vast
Anbar province. Meanwhile, Carlos Valenzuela,
the chief United Nations elections expert in
Iraq, cautioned that forecasts for the Sunni
areas were so low to begin with that even a
higher-than-expected turnout would remain low.
In a rare
reference to an actual vote tabulation, The New
York Times on Thursday reports that in the
"diverse" city of Mosul, with 60% of the count
completed, the overall turnout seems slightly
above 10%, or "somewhat more than 50,000 of
Mosul's 500,000 estimated eligible voters."
This, of course, is no
minor matter: Iraq's leading Sunni Muslim
clerics said Wednesday that the country's
election lacked legitimacy because large numbers
of Sunnis did not participate in the balloting.
Sure, many of them are simply sore losers (they
lost an entire country) but that doesn't make
their reaction any less troublesome for Iraq's
future, especially with the cleric-backed Shiite
alliance apparently headed for a landslide
of The New York Times warned Thursday that the
widespread Sunni boycott "could even lead to the
failure of the constitution; under the rules
drafted last year to guide the establishment of
a new Iraqi state, a two-thirds 'no' vote in
three provinces would send the constitution down
to defeat. The Sunnis are a majority in three
the overall Iraqi turnout: the more the better,
but why is the press so confident in the
estimates from an Iraqi commission with a clear
stake in a high number?
For several days now, many in the
media have routinely referred to the figure of 8
million Iraqi voters, following the lead of
Farid Ayar, the spokesman for the Independent
Electoral Commission for Iraq. In the original
press citations, what Ayar actually said
(hedging his bets) was "as many as 8 million,"
which most reports quickly translated as "about
8 million," and then, inevitably, "8 million."
A Knight Ridder report was among
the few that characterized this as only a guess.
Curiously, the day
before the election, according to press reports,
Ayar had predicted that 7 to 8 million would
turn out, giving him some incentive to later
spot the numbers in that neighborhood.
Also, one dares to
ask: If the commission expected close to 8
million, and that's what happened -- and there
was less violence on election day than
anticipated -- why was the turnout greeted as
such a surprise? Especially since U.S. and Iraqi
leaders have spent months knocking the press for
failing to report that the vast majority of
regions in this country are safe and friendly.
The percentage of
turnout supplied by Ayar came to 57% (happily
rounded off by many in the press to 60%). This
was based on what was described as 14 million
potential voters divided by those 8 million who
braved the potential bullets and bombs to go to
Sunday, while hailing the millions going to the
polls, I also raised questions about the 14
million eligible figure: was that registered
voters, or all adults over 18, or what? Few on
TV or in print seem to be quite sure, to this
It's a big
difference. Since Sunday, countless TV talking
heads, such as Chris Matthews, and print pundits
have compared the Iraq turnout favorably to U.S.
national elections, not seeming to understand
that 80%-90% of our registered voters usually
turn out. The problem in our country is that so
few people bother to register, bringing our
overall turnout numbers way down.
Howard Kurtz at least
looked into the Iraqi numbers. In a Tuesday
column, he observed that "the 14 million figure
is the number of registered Iraqis, while
turnout is usually calculated using the number
of eligible voters. The number of adults in Iraq
is probably closer to 18 million," which would
lower the turnout figure to 45% (if, indeed, the
8 million number holds up).
To put it clearly: If say, for
example, 50,000 residents of a city registered
and 25,000 voted, that would seem like a very
respectable 50% turnout, by one standard. But if
the adult population of the city was 150,000,
then the actual turnout of 16% would look quite
"Election officials concede they did
not have a reliable baseline on which to
calculate turnout," Kurtz concluded.
He also quoted
Democratic strategist Robert Weiner as saying:
"It's an amazing media error, a huge blunder.
I'm sure the Bush administration is thrilled by
Bloggers quickly questioned Kurtz's
upgrade to 18 million, noting that the
population of the country, according to many
sources, is 25 million or so, and the population
is heavily teenaged and younger. But other
current estimates run as high as 27.1 million.
The critics also
hit Kurtz for not providing a source for his 18
million figure. But Kurtz told E&P on
Wednseday, "I talked to a couple of experts, one
of whom was Ken Pollack, from Brookings, and
also ran it by two of my reporters in Baghdad.
But it is definitely an approximation, just
trying to give a sense that -- the one thing
everyone I consulted seems to agree on -- is
that the 14 million, the baseline, is a very
fuzzy figure because there was no registration."
He said he thought
it was Pollack, "who studies this for a living,"
who pegged the adult population of Iraq at 17 or
18 million. "Maybe he leaned more toward 18
million," Kurtz added. "I don't know if this is
a definitive figure but I was just trying to
explain the difference between whatever that
figure is and the 14 million that was so widely
used by all the media as if it were everyone
eligible -- which means, to me, everyone over
18. When in fact it was this concocted number
about passive registration based on who got
rations. The point is, it's all fuzzy math, and
I was just trying to illustrate that."
He added: "This was my
stab at just trying to tell readers the 60%
figure that had been so widely touted was hardly
definitive, and it may be lower."
All credit to the
brave Iraqis who did vote, and in many places
they did turn out in droves. But it occurred to
me, watching the moving TV images on Sunday of
people standing in line outside polling places
in Sunni hot spots, that maybe, as so often, the
camera lied. In many embattled Sunni cities,
we'd been told, many if not most polling places
never opened. Wouldn't this likely cause a
crush, by even a few hundred voters, at the
relatively few places that did open?
Not that anyone, that
I know of, was asking.
Greg Mitchell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is the editor of E&P and author of seven
books on politics and history. Research
assistance for this column by Brian Orloff.
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