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Media Mangles Iraq Vote

Are the turnout numbers routinely cited by the press – 8 million and 57% – supported by reality? And was the outpouring of voters in Sunni areas really "surprisingly strong"?
 
 
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Everyone, of 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 win.

Dexter Filkins 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 provinces."

As for 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, the press has 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 in the media quickly translated as "about 8 million," and then, inevitably, "8 million."

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 the polls.

On 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 day.

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 different.

"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 this spin."

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 ( gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is the editor of E&P and author of seven books on politics and history. Research assistance for this column by Brian Orloff.