Spoiled Ballots in the Islamic Republic: From One Percent to Second Place

June 20, 2021
Ehsan Mehrabi
7 min read
There were more "invalid" votes cast in Friday's presidential election than for any of the losing three candidates
There were more "invalid" votes cast in Friday's presidential election than for any of the losing three candidates
Spoiled ballots have a long history in Iran, but never before have they accounted for more than 4 percent of the vote
Spoiled ballots have a long history in Iran, but never before have they accounted for more than 4 percent of the vote

Along with the lowest-ever turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic, Friday’s presidential election broke a second record: that of “invalid” votes. So great was the number of spoiled, blank or otherwise inadmissible ballots that they cumulatively took second place in the final results after president-elect Ebrahim Raisi.

According to the official figures, close to 29 million people out of a 59 million-strong electorate cast a vote on Friday. More than 3.7 million of the ballots were said to have been invalid.

But on adding together the number of declared votes for each candidate – and the spoiled ones – and deducting this figure from from the stated total, it transpires that another 440,000 votes remain unaccounted for. If these are included among the “invalid” ballot papers, then these in sum made up 14 percent of all votes cast.

Where Did Half a Million Votes Go?

An advisor to the Interior Minister, and a number of journalists, have posited that the 440,000 “ghost” votes were filled-out ballot papers mistakenly placed in the wrong box.

The law on Iranian presidential elections is ambiguous on what to do in such a situation. But Articles 25 and 26 of the Electoral Law do deal specifically with “invalid” and “uncountable” votes. Article 25 states that ballots are considered "invalid" if they are illegible, paid-for, bear the voter's name, signature or fingerprint, are cast on behalf of someone other than approved candidates, or are blank.

Article 26 deals with votes that are not officially considered part of the “invalid” count but are, rather, “uncountable”. These include ballot papers that are missing stamps, votes in excess of the number of ballot papers distributed, votes cast by those not of legal voting age, or under the identities of deceased or non-Iranian citizens, and votes obtained through “fraud and deceit”.

Both articles state that “uncountable” ballot papers should be deducted from the official number of votes cast. In other words, as some media outlets point out, they should have been “lost” and not included in any official statistics at all. This being the case, the overall turnout on Friday should be considered one percent lower than was stated.

The Role of “Invalid” Votes from 2009 to 2021

Even with this half a million removed from play, “invalid” votes accounted for about 13 percent of all those cast in the Islamic Republic’s 13th presidential election: more than those earned by any of the other three candidates, causing some observers to comment darkly that “invalid” votes were Ebrahim Raisi’s true rival.

After the 65 percent of votes that went to Raisi, and the “invalid” 13 percent, just 12 percent of the vote went to Mohsen Rezaei, eight percent to Abdolnasser Hemmati and three percent to Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi.

In no previous period in the Islamic Republic has such a high volume of “invalid” votes – many of which, in this case, are likely to be spoiled ballots – been counted. The figure stood at about 3 percent in 2017, and 3.4 percent in 2013.

Twelve years ago in 2009, just one percent of the votes cast were deemed “invalid”. That alone was enough to provoke controversy at the time. Then-candidate Mehdi Karroubi had received only 0.85 percent of the vote, according to the disputed official count, and claimed the “invalid” ones had been deliberately manipulated to avenge his criticism of the Supreme Leader.

Also curious in the 2021 election was the fact that when the preliminary results were announced on Saturday noon, with 90 percent of the votes counted, not a single vote was at that point said to be invalid. In other words, 3.7 to 4.1 million erroneous ballots were counted only at the very end of the process.

The proportion of “invalid” votes has never so much as breached 5 percent before. In 1981 it stood at 2.12 percent, in 1985 it was 3.2 percent, dropping to 2.15 percent in 1989 – the year Ali Khamenei became president – down to 1.8 percent in 1993. It then increased slightly to 1.85 percent in 1997 and 2.25 percent in 2001

The highest-ever proportion of “invalid” votes recorded by the Ministry of Interior was about 4 percent in 2005: not even a third of the figure announced on Saturday. In 2005, one of the biggest issues to dominate the pre-electoral campaign season was the prospect of a boycott.

Similarly, there has never before been an election where every single candidate on the ballot paper – with the exception of the winner – earned fewer votes than the combined number of “invalid” ones.

A Four Million-Strong Mockery?

What ultimately renders these figures important is what an “invalid” vote or spoiled ballot means in a given country. In Iran, both ordinary citizens and activists take these to mean either blank votes, or votes cast that contain insults, ridicule or scribblings.

The practice of putting names other than those of the official candidates dates back to the period immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Some voters wrote the names of singers, local heroes or the Shah of Iran on their ballot papers as a sign of protest.

In reports of their "field observations" on Friday, some reporters – both jokingly and half-seriously – said the name of Abbas Bouazar graced a number of the spoiled papers and that he might be the true runner-up after Raisi. Abbas Bouozar is an Iranian midfield football player who has become the subject of satire in the country after his name was mentioned in a quasi-legendary press conference some time ago.

In the days leading up to the 2021 vote, and at the height of the public debate over boycotting and casting blank votes, the journal Hezbollah Line published a fatwa from the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic that declared: "If casting blank votes weakens the Islamic system, it is forbidden."

This religious ruling instantly echoed through cyberspace again after the final count was released on Saturday. Despite – or perhaps in the face of – Ayatollah Khamenei’s direct and serious intervention, more than 4.2 million “invalid” votes had been cast across Iran.

On the other hand, some pro-Islamic Republic media outlets interpreted the figure as a "positive sign" that the people had "supported the Islamic Republic by throwing down a blank ballot instead of  boycotting" – or even, inexplicably, as indicating that people were waiting for president-elect Raisi to "gradually alleviate the people's problems."

In Iran, there are also other specific reasons why some people may be motivated to cast a blank ballot. Soldiers are legally compelled to vote, and many government employees feel forced to; still others require an electoral stamp on their birth certificates to get by in future work.

In addition, some people attended the polling stations on Friday only wanting to vote in the local council elections, which ran at the same time as the presidential one. This time around at least, they were told that they had to cast a vote in both elections, or the electronic system would come back with an error message. Some may therefore have cast a blank vote in the presidential election out of apathy, and in order to get their council vote through.

There is, of course, also speculation that at least some of the blank or spoiled ballots might have come from conservatives whose preferred candidates, such as Saeed Jalili, had withdrawn or been knocked out of the race earlier on in favor of Raisi.

Regardless of the cocktail of different motives, and excuses, the millions upon millions of “invalid” votes will be now the subject of political satire and irony in Iran for some time to come. Never before has this issue come so sharply to the fore, and no doubt it will way heavily on all those with a vested interest in the final count.

Related coverage:

Dozens Detained Across Iran for Violations of Election Rules

Iran's Deserted Polling Stations: Citizens Report Their On-the-Ground Experiences

Election Disruption: From Blackouts to Ballot Paper Shortages

Khatami Votes as Ahmadinejad Insists on Boycott

Sattar Beheshti’s Mother: To Vote Is to Become an Accessory to Bloodshed

27 Arrests in One Province for "Subverting the Election"



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