Media grossly exaggerate Palestinian voter turnout

10 January 2005

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A Palestinian woman votes, while another observes, at a polling station in central Ramallah. (Photo: Rob Maguire)

How many Palestinians in the occupied territories actually voted in the 9 January election for president of the Palestinian Authority? Reports from several major news organizations are misleadingly stating or giving the impression that nearly 70 percent of potential Palestinian voters in the occupied territories voted. In fact, the number is well below 50 percent.

According to CNN.com:

“Election officials reported about 65 percent turnout among the 1.8 million voters. Earlier they had reported about 35 percent and extended the voting by two hours.” (Abbas declared victor in Palestinian election, CNN.com, 10 January 2004)

Los Angeles Times reporter James Gerstenzang wrote in an article on that newspaper’s website:

Few serious problems were reported in the voting, as voters braved a wintry chill to take part in the first election for Palestinian Authority president since 1996. The Central Election Commission said turnout was at least 70%. Some commentators had said Abbas would need a turnout of two-thirds of the 1.8 million eligible voters to claim a broad mandate. (“Bush: Abbas Welcome at White House,” Los Angeles Times website, 10 January 2005)

And, in an official statement, President Bush declared “I am heartened by today’s strong turnout in the Palestinian elections.”

But official figures released by the Central Elections Commission - Palestine (CEC) tell a very different story and demonstrate that major news organizations reporting such figures are failing to check facts and seem to lack a grasp of basic mathematics.

A total of 775,146 ballots were cast in the January 9 poll according to an official statement from the CEC giving the vote totals for each candidate in the election. (CEC Statement on the 2005 Presidential Election,” CEC, 10 January 2005)

At the end of polling, the Head of the CEC, Dr Hanna Nasir, told the media that “Approximately seventy per cent of registered voters voted today … While approximately only ten per cent of unregistered voters turned out.”

The distinction between registered and unregistered voters is crucial to understanding the actual turnout figure, but it is a distinction the media have failed to grasp. The CEC had made enormous efforts to register all eligible Palestinian voters in the run up to the election, but almost a third of eligible voters did not register or were unable to register. In an effort to boost low turnout, the CEC made a highly contested decision in the final hours of polling day to allow unregistered voters to cast ballots using only their identity cards, which raised fears of multiple voting. A Palestinian election official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that the changes came after heavy pressure from Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, which feared a low turnout could weaken Abbas. (“Abbas Wins Palestinian Vote in Landslide,” Associated Press, 10 January 2005).

The day before the election the total number of registered voters was 1,092,407 according to a CEC press release. (“Central Elections Commission (CEC) Upcoming Presidential Elections: Facts and Statistics,” CEC, 8 January 2005)

So taking the total number of votes cast and dividing it into this figure indicates that the turnout was an impressive 71 percent of registered voters, consistent with Dr. Nasir’s statement to the media.

Official Election Results from the Central Election Commission

Name of Candidate Affiliation Number of Votes Percentage
Mustafa Barghouti (Independent) 153,516 19.80%
Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) The Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fateh) 483,039 62.32%
Bassam El-Salhi Palestinian Popular Party 20,844 2.69%
Tayseer Khalid Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine 27,118 3.50%
Abdel Kareem Shbeir Independent 5,874 0.76%
Abdel Halim Al-Ashqar Independent 20,774 2.68%
Al-Said Baraka Independent 9,809 1.27%

Invalid Polling Papers 29,366 3.79%
Blank Polling Papers 24,806 3.20%
TOTAL 775,146 100%

But that is not the whole story. In a November 23 statement, the CEC explained:

“The number of registrants on the voters’ list reached 1,111,868, or 67 percent of the estimated number of eligible voters, during the registration process conducted between September 4 and October 13, 2004. Of these names, 19,000 were removed from the voters’ list because the accompanying data was incomplete or the names were repeated on the list. With this adjustment, the number of registered voters decreased to 1,092,856.” (“46% of Registered Voters are Youths, 46% are Women,” CEC, 23 November 2004)

It would appear that several hundred more voters were removed from the voter lists between the November 23 statement and election day. But based on the November 23 estimate that only two-thirds of eligible voters had been registered, we can calculate that the total number of eligible voters in the occupied territories is approximately 1,660,000.

From this number we can calculate that the actual turnout in the election was just 46.7 percent of eligible voters. It would appear that a clear majority of eligible Palestinian voters in the occupied territories either chose not to participate in the election, or were unable to because they were not registered or were removed from the voter lists. This is far from the great success that the media and the international peace process industry have trumpeted.

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    Ali Abunimah is a founder of The Electronic Intifada.