The Country You Save May Be Your Own

What Elections in Iran Can Teach Us About Voting in the United States

Iranian women after casting their votes during the presidential election in Tehran, May 2017 TIMA/REUTERS

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

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