How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Every vote I cast in Iran took place in a mosque or in a schoolhouse, transformed for a day into a civilian headquarters, one of hundreds stationed across the capital. The most recent was in an elementary school just off Haft-e Tir Square in central Tehran, not far from the former U.S. embassy compound. Like many Iranians, I came with my family, with strength in our boisterous numbers, and we very quickly took over the schoolhouse: a mini-mafia for democracy. We were met with brightly papered hallways and children’s work, the smells and cheery displays not unlike the New England gymnasium where my fiancé and I cast our midterm ballots on November 6, 2018. We voted in those same hallways, bending ourselves at right angles into tiny desks, the kind we remembered from long ago and that had no business bearing our weight now, our legs unfolding like paper accordions when we were done.
Democracy in Iran is, of course, a figment of what the United States makes available to its own citizens or of what Americans imagine a real democracy ought to be. Iranian voters have had to struggle for the little they have, to make their slender share of power matter. If their attempts fail—if their system fails them—then these setbacks do not preclude the American reader from drawing lessons from how Iranians vote, and most important why they vote at all, when all available evidence indicates that the game is rigged.
The mechanism for voting in Iran is strictly analog, with candidates’ names matched to numbers and written out in longhand. The ballot requires some assembly, which is done on-site by a conveyor of election officials. A national ID card (standard issue), an ink pad (provided), a registry booklet (in which to record the vote), an official document (in which to record the vote again, this time for the state files), press the finger on the pad, place the finger onto the document, move down the line to the next station. Grab the ballot and go sit down. Vote.
The vote is otherwise effortless. Start to finish the process takes 20 minutes, not at all like that in the boroughs of New York City, where on November 6 residents stood in line and in the rain because of broken scanners, or in Snellville, Georgia, where officials failed to supply power cords for their voting machines, causing the batteries to die and dozens to give up and go home or to work.
The vote is also made to be accessible. Iranians vote, always, on a Friday, a rest day, the same as an American Sunday. They vote wherever they like. Show up and the ballot (and ink pad) will be there: any location will do. This indulgence is denied the residents of Dodge City, Kansas, where election officials moved the city’s longtime and only polling location a mile outside the city boundary, making voting a difficult task for the town’s 13,000 voters, 60 percent of whom are Latino laborers in the local meatpacking industry who cannot afford to take a day off to vote.
There is no requirement in Iran to register onto a voter roll and so no chance of being denied the vote because names fell off the rolls, as happened in Florida to a former member of Congress who noticed that his absentee ballot wasn’t counted because of an “invalid signature” match or to another resident of Florida who wasrefused the ballot in person on election day because her signature, made at the polling place with a finger on a smartpad, didn’t match her ID. “Lady said your signature doesn’t match,” she protested on Twitter, “I responded I didn’t sign my ID with my finger!”
These differences don’t owe to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s deeper commitment to popular sovereignty so much as they do to its differing priorities. An election in Iran is above all else a project of organization, of mobilizing a day of spectacle for domestic and international audiences. Officials care less about where, when, and how its citizens vote than that they vote, that they show up for the cameras. The Islamic democracy will be televised, its central drama being the size and patience of the crowds lining up to vote in Isfahan, Shiraz, Ahvaz, and Tabriz. Officially their presence offers proof of the public’s love for the revolution and the country that preserves it, each vote a mortal blow to the enemy, who is presumed to be watching with rapt bitterness at home. Unofficially, elections are appropriated by the public for domestic reasons that have little to do with stopping foreign enemies, making them therefore prone to producing surprises that are decidedly regime unfriendly.
Still, the Islamic Republic of Iran sees its advantage in bringing out the vote, not in denying it. Voter suppression makes for bad television. And so scenes like the one in North Dakota, where a new requirement that voters show they have a current residential address prevented many thousands of Native Americans from voting, or in Georgia, where more than 650,000 registrations were canceled last year and more than 85,000 canceled through August 1 this year, are in the Iranian circumstance unimaginable.
That is in part because in Islamic Iran the suppression takes place off-site, away from the cameras. Like all electoral systems, liberal or otherwise, Iran’s comes equipped with circuit breakers—institutional mechanisms for preventing the voters from producing “wrong” outcomes. If in the United States the electoral college originally took on that role, intended in part by James Madison to preserve the republic from demagogues and charlatans (it now dependably affords disproportional representation to rural voters and empty fields), then in the case of Iran, that discriminating device is the Guardian Council, an unelected 12-member commission that ruthlessly, officially, culls candidate lists according to “Islamic competency” but unofficially operates as an armature of factional power. A redoubt of conservatives, the council reliably sees to the wholesale removal of reformists from the ballot. To take a recent example, only 30 reformists out of a proffered list of 3,000, or one percent, qualified for the 2016 parliamentary poll; in Tehran, the figure was four. To paraphrase a popular meme, Iran’s conservatives can’t lose a competition if they don’t have to face the competition.
The Islamic Republic of Iran sees its advantage in bringing out the vote, not in denying it. Voter suppression makes for bad television.
With the eligibility of candidates, not voters, at stake each election cycle, one of the endearing qualities of Iranian democracy is that many thousands will still try to make it past the council. In Tehran alone 1,121 individuals applied to run for 30 available seats in the legislative elections of 2016. Nationwide an astonishing 12,123 signed up for the honor, many of them resorting to creative subterfuge in order to be accepted.
Those who survive the vetting process are met on election day by millions of their fellow citizens, voters who show up to cast their ballots in a process that, we are told, is meaningless. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, they persist not in spite of the absurdity but because of it. Almost 15 years ago, reform-minded Iranians came to the realization that the greatest threat to their well-being was not the lack of choice among candidates for office but detachment, the choice of despair.
For Iran’s reform movement, mobilization is a nonnegotiable imperative, as low turnout always favors conservatives and incumbents. Fewer than 28 million Iranians—some 60 percent of the eligible public—voted in the 2005 presidential election that brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, an anemic figure by historical standards. The resulting administration proved catastrophic for Iran, economically and politically, at home and abroad.
The greatest threat to reform-minded Iranians is not the lack of choice among candidates for office but detachment, the choice of despair.
Since then, Iranians have voted as if each election is more important than the last. For a time, it appeared that the 2009 election would be their last. More than 40 million eligible voters turned out that year, an astonishing 85 percent of the public, many of them seeking to prevent the reelection of Ahmadinejad to a second term. What began as a festive occasion quickly fell to ruin as, for the first time since the founding of the republic, many Iranians came to feel that the electoral system was being manipulated both before and after the vote, violating the unspoken social contract that enabled the system to function with some plausibility of being democratic, the state pretending to hold fully free and fair elections and the voters pretending to believe in them. The large demonstrations that followed sent a clear warning to the authorities that the public was prepared to turn out in force to defend its vote and hold the state accountable on its own terms, registered in the protest slogan Where is my vote?
After that, rather than back down, voters doubled down. Some 37 million citizens voted in the 2013 presidential election that swept Hassan Rouhani into office, nearly matching the record turnout from four years earlier, in spite of the “defeat” and violent repressionof the Green Movement. Iran’s conservatives were chastened: they had once again miscalculated the ability of the reformists to energize what had appeared to be a cynical population, to say nothing of the electorate’s determination to make the most of the limited options before them and to see each election through as a contest between real alternatives. In the lead up to the 2013 ballot, the Guardian Council disqualified Ahmadinejad’s heir apparent from running for higher office while the hard-line judiciary persecuted his inner circle for “deviancy,” coming the closest the state ever had to admitting error for its role in the former president’s rise and reelection.
Eight years of Ahmadinejad taught Iranians that apathy offers no refuge. “You might not be interested in politics,” Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar of Texas A&M observes, describing life in Iran after the revolution, “but politics is interested in you, always.” The reformists’ continuing turnout campaign offers its own variation on this notion: prevention is better than a cure. Abeyance of citizenship, the withholding of the vote until the right candidate comes around to save the people from a corrupt and unfair system, leads nowhere. In the choice between bad va badtar, bad and worse, better to keep out the worst.
Two years of U.S. President Donald Trump appear to have brought millions of Americans to a similar place of understanding, from where wisdom can be found. As of this writing, 115 million Americans voted in the 2018 midterms, a 32 percent increase from the 2014 elections. According to the political strategist Evan Siegfried, the turnout rate of 49 percent of eligible voters is the highest since 1914 and the largest since 18-year-oldsachieved the right to vote. (Trump, it would seem, picked the wrong amendment to worry about in the closing days of the campaign.)
Trump and Ahmadinejad share a number of traits, not least of which is a singular ability to mobilize populations, to move numbers, whether it be onto the streets and squares of Tehran and Los Angeles or into the polling stations at election time. A desire to restore competence and decency in government explains why many of them come. (Democrats won women’s vote for Congress by 19 points, the largest margin ever recorded in midterm exit polls; among voters under 30 the difference was 35 points, also a record.) What begs for comparative analysis is explaining how these many citizens are mobilized, no small feat given that politics is anathema to much of the public in both countries.
The decision to vote tends to be deeply personal for Iranians, typically made at the last possible moment, with some “20 percent of the electorate making a decision about whether to vote or not essentially in the last few weeks prior to the election,” according to the political scientist Farideh Farhi. They do so very often at the behest of the millions of young, college-educated Iranians who pressure, cajole, and drag their parents and relatives to the ballot box as a rebuke to conservatives as well as the politics of apathy that led to the rise of Ahmadinejad.
The problem of democracy in the United States, Iran teaches us, is not the forgotten voter, the protagonist who haunts countless on-the-road and at-the-diner 2016 postmortems. Nor is it the handwringing swing voter, upon whose shoulders rests the fate of the republic, reliably obsessed over every two years. Rather, the problem of democracy is the nonvoter, the nearly 103 million Americans who either refused or were unable to cast a ballot in 2016. Stated only slightly differently, their absence and apathy embolden the authoritarian, creeping or otherwise.
This is the lesson Iran offers: Vote as if your life depends on it—as if the country you save is your own.