Ballot Botch

It's too early to know whether early reports of implausibly high numbers of "yes" voters in Saturday's referendum in Iraq will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the country's new constitution. While there's still hope for a clean victory, sufficient doubts have been cast on the results to open a door for those who would wish to cry foul. Whether whiffs of ballot-stuffing or fraud are validated, the absence of a large-scale international observer contingent on hand to monitor this high-stakes election was a glaring gap in the planning for this pivotal event.

The presence of international observers has become a mainstay of election planning in transitional societies, as their presence deters would-be spoilers from planning shenanigans. Observers can watch balloting, oversee the collection and storage of votes, and monitor counting. Tasks range from reporting on improper campaign activities at polling stations, to preventing people from voting more than once, to imposing fair and transparent methods for tallying votes. International monitors have played essential roles in recent elections in the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.

In polarized and dangerous places like Iraq, there is no substitute for detached foreigners who can call things like they see them and then leave quickly enough to avoid reprisals. Early reports on Saturday's voting suggest that, while local monitors were out in force, they were partisan.

Back in January, The Washington Post reported on the paucity of international observers to oversee the country's first democratic election. Neither the Carter Center, the U.S. Congress, nor the European Union deployed monitors. "That means you don't have an independent voice that can really report credibly on the quality of the election -- in a context where there are already extremely difficult circumstances and doubts about the process," said the Carter Center's David Carroll.

Yet, despite widespread reports of violence and intimidation during the January balloting, observers were not recruited in larger numbers for last weekend's referendum. According to this Council on Foreign Relations site, while lots of international organizations have helped train local Iraqi monitors, few if any have sent their own personnel in. This includes the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), both of which have monitored elections on the ground in dozens of other places around the world but have declined to do so in Iraq.

The Iraqi Electoral Commission's Web site reports that in early October the body extended the registration deadline for international observers in the hopes that more groups would register. But only 500 observers had signed up to oversee Iraq's voting, down from the 700 during the January elections.

There's no mystery as to why foreigners have stayed out of Iraq during polling time: An upsurge in violence was predicted, and organizations opted not to put their people in harm's way. Both the UN and an international monitoring entity responsible for Iraq have located their operations in Amman, 500 miles from Baghdad.

Given the stakes of this referendum, the failure to enlist larger numbers of international observers could set back the goals of Iraqi self-reliance and U.S. withdrawal. Even if no evidence of widespread fraud is found, fishy numbers will raise doubt in the minds of the constitution's opponents -- misgivings that could morph into fresh violence as members of the Sunni minority question whether they can get a fair shake at the polls.

The Bush administration could have enlisted international observers -- had it made up its mind to do so. Given our national commitment to Iraq, government-funded entities like the IRI and the NDI could have been pushed to send people. Those who oversee polls in places like Bosnia and the West Bank are an intrepid lot who get a thrill out of watching embryonic democracies in action. A call for volunteers for Iraq could have yielded an outpouring. If the military and private contractors can provide relative safety for workers engaged in rebuilding Iraqi schools and infrastructure, they could have done the same for the poll-watchers. Had that happened, the people of Iraq would now be celebrating the passage of their constitution rather than wondering whether the results of the election will hold.

Suzanne Nossel is a Senior Fellow at the Security and Peace Initiative, a joint project of the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress.