LOS ANGELES – Tens of thousands of Iraqi immigrants across the United States who may be entitled to vote in their homeland’s elections this month are finding that confusion is the front-runner.
What began as enthusiasm for the absentee balloting has given way to frustration among Iraqi expatriates who are uncertain where they will vote and whether they will even be eligible.
With less than two weeks before voter registration begins, U.S. organizers say they still have not decided on the exact locations of up to 25 polling places in the five cities selected to host the vote: Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Nashville and Los Angeles.
Getting to the polls is yet another challenge. Those who live in New York City, Phoenix and Dallas – other cities with large Iraqi populations – will have to travel hundreds of miles to appear in person at polling centers twice in two weeks; registration is Jan. 17-23, and voting is Jan. 28-30.
“Iraqis are aware of the elections, but they might not be aware of the process and registering,” said Sayed Mostafa Al Qazwini, imam of the Islamic Educational Center in Orange County. “They don’t have enough information and there’s not much time left.”
Election organizers acknowledge problems and say they are doing their best with the little time they have. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq in Baghdad authorized an out-of-country vote in November and enlisted the International Organization of Migration to organize it.
“Why they decided at such a late hour to hold out-of-country voting, I couldn’t tell you,” said Jeremy Copeland, an IOM official overseeing the balloting in the United States.
Copeland acknowledged that showing up twice in person could prove too burdensome for some, but said the rule was necessary to prevent fraud.
In some cities, election staff members are just now arriving and starting to organize town hall meetings.
The challenges facing Iraqi expatriates pale in comparison to the bombings, assassinations and death threats in Iraq ahead of the Jan. 30 election for an assembly that will draft a constitution. Still, many Iraqis fear they will miss the opportunity to take part in Iraq’s first independent election in nearly 50 years.
There are about 90,000 foreign-born Iraqis in the United States, plus an untold number of second-generation Iraqi Americans.
Iraqi-born adults can vote with two forms of identification. The ID does not have to be from Iraq, but at least one piece must prove Iraqi birth. Second-generation Iraqi Americans with Iraqi-born fathers may also vote.
Though no one is sure how many overseas Iraqis will actually cast ballots, organizers say they have the capacity to count up to 1 million votes in 14 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Canada and Australia.
Many Iraqi Americans are uncertain about what documents they need to register.
Al Qazwini worried that his 40-year-old expired Iraqi passport would not be accepted. The only other Iraqi document he has, he said, is his birth certificate.
“I know many of the Iraqis who lived in exile, like me, for the last 30 years have invalid documentation,” he said. “We would have thought that the interim government would have made it easy for us.”
Some Iraqi Americans wanted polls to be set up in San Diego, the city with the third-largest population of Iraqi immigrants after Detroit and Chicago. The request was turned down for lack of time, Copeland said.
Others have complained that the registration period conflicts with the Hajj, an annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest places in Saudi Arabia.
“A number of us will be missing the chance to vote,” said Ridha Hajjar, the imam at the Ahlul Beyt Mosque in Pomona, who because of the Hajj will not be taking part in the election. “I feel sad, but hopefully this is the first vote and there will be another one a year from now. It’s a process, a step on the road.”