I admit to being conflicted about whether or not to vote in the Iraqi “OCV” or out-of-country voting elections held over the weekend here in Chicago (and in dozens of locations around the world), an admission that would earn me pretty nasty accusations of being uncaring or betraying the Assyrians still in Iraq. Iraqi Assyrians are counting on a strong turnout in the OCV voting to balance the regular vote theft that happens locally and to give an extra nudge to the most popular Assyrian slate, al-Rafidain, the slate of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the largest and most active Assyrian political organization in Iraq.
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Nevertheless, I don’t live in Iraq. And while I do care deeply about what happens there, the results of the election won’t effect me in any way as deeply as it effects the people who do live there. Why should my vote, made half a world way and with no understanding of the day-to-day life of people in Iraq, count as much as the vote of some nineteen year old whose only life experience is war and occupation and who desperately wants to believe that democracy can make a difference in his life?
It is selfish and unfair, I thought, for me to vote here for the Iraqi parliament when I do not live there, have never lived there, and never plan to live there. The justification, that I probably would live there if my parents hadn’t been forced to flee in the 1970s, doesn’t seem perfectly sound. Any reasonable statute of limitations would have expired on that argument, it seems, as of the collapse of Hussein’s regime (and considering the millions who have had to flee subsequently—-creating the world’s fastest growing displacement crisis).
The emotional argument—-that the people of Iraq, particularly Iraq’s minorities who make up the bulk of its refugees, want Iraqis in other parts of the world to vote to help them—-is a compelling one, but not one that can justify a massive program like OCV. With all due respect to my brothers and sisters who have worked tirelessly to promote the OCV in the US and Canada, their primary argument that a vote was an expression of patriotism is not just weak, but wrong.
But, there are compelling arguments that elections experts generally cite as reasoning behind OCV elections: first, that OCVs in post-conflict nations are an important step towards reestablishing relations between displaced communities and those that stayed behind. This is undeniably true. Second, diaspora communities become diaspora communities (as opposed to merely immigrant communities) exactly because of the duration of a conflict or illegal regime dominating a homeland. Had the Ba’ath Party been toppled in the early 1980s, there is a good chance my family would have returned to Iraq—-or, at the very least, that we would have returned for a time, enough for me to establish my own citizenship. In any case, the length of a conflict or occupation is what determines alienation more than a personal preference. In all likelihood, those who fled and made a personal choice to sever their relationship with their “homeland” are probably not going to go through the steps to vote, anyway.
Third, and perhaps most compelling, is that not having an OCV program—-or an overly restrictive one more akin to absentee voting—-rewards political violence. This cannot be understated. In a world where illiberal democracies are flourishing, political violence meant to chill the expression of the franchise (or to flat-out alter demographics, to put it lightly [pdf]) is a potent tool of paramilitary groups and autocratic forces. Where “elections” are the only truly vibrant element of a democracy, efforts to forcibly control who can actually vote does double duty in both reinforcing autocracy and protecting a regime from accusations of dictatorship (“Look, we have regular competitive elections!”) Sustaining OCV programs for a period post-conflict blunts the effectiveness of political violence meant to chill the vote or create displacement. With OCV voting in place, any violence meant to influence the election actually ends up fanning the flames of international outrage and attention as diaspora communities react to stories of coercion, particularly against minority populations, and vote in larger numbers.
Until Iraq’s democracy moves past its post-conflict illiberal stage, OCV-eligible voters have a duty to express their franchise in solidarity not with some interest group but rather with the principle of democracy itself. That is the story behind my purple finger.