Last week on election day, thousands of voters originally from outside Iraqi Kurdistan were told they could not vote. The reason? Logistics - wrong ID cards, wrong locations, wrong dates. But the voters say it was…

Originally published in by IRIS Director Christine van den Toorn (May 8, 2014).

“Arab or Kurd?” the security staff asked people entering the Jawahiri Elementary School in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah, in the semi autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan; this was last week, on election day. Then after asking this, they announced: “No Arabs can vote here”.

After being told they would not be allowed to vote there, around a hundred Iraqi Arabs – mostly from Baghdad with a few from Diyala – gathered outside the Jawahiri School. Most reported they had voted at this same school in past elections, and that they spoke Kurdish, some fluently, because they\'d lived in Sulaymaniyah for years. Some had been here for around three years and some for as many as ten years. Many were official residents of Iraqi Kurdistan.

“I have lived here ten years, I voted in the last elections, this is my iqama,” one man originally from Baghdad said, referring to his Iraqi Kurdish residency card.

The crowd in front of the school included families with children, elderly women in abaya and men in suits and dishdasha. They had all had long mornings and told of the same “wild goose chase” that had taken them from polling centre to polling centre: many went first went to the polling centre written on most of their cards, only to be turned away and told to go to either the Al Sinaa School or the Jawahiri School. There a group of young Iraqi Arab men began to protest, joining one of their number, who was chanting about the current injustice.

“I woke up at 6.30 this morning, excited and ready to vote,” said one man, also originally from Baghdad who works at a local IT firm; he has lived in Sulaymaniyah for six years. “I wanted to have a say in forming the next government.”

Some locals have estimated that overall, nearly 4,000 registered voters from outside of the Kurdistan Region were unable to vote in Sulaymaniyah and several media organisations have reported this number. Calls to the offices responsible for supervising elections in Sulaymaniyah were not returned. However in private, officials told NIQASH that they had no firm numbers on how many voters were unable to vote, nor did they have any numbers on how many of those unable to vote were Arab or came from outside Sulaymaniyah. Anecdotally though, there were plenty of examples of frustrated would-be voters.

But there was also determination. Many of the voters had been milling around the school for hours, waiting for news and a solution.

Later in the morning a crowd of the Iraqi Arabs who had been unable to vote went to the local offices of Iraq\'s Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, to ask for further information. “There were about 300 of us,” one of the men who had gone there, told NIQASH. “We formed a cordon at the headquarters near Azadi Park but the police came and beat us with their guns and forced us to leave.”

A number of reasons were given to the voters as to why they were turned away from polling stations.

Some blamed the new electronic voter identification cards. The polling station manager at the Jawahiri School said, “people had to vote where their E-card was issued … their cards were issued in Baghdad so they have to vote in Baghdad”.

Another polling station official, this time at the Solaf School, maintained that if those cards went into the scanners, the machines wouldn\'t read them.

The idea of having to vote in Baghdad seemed ludicrous to many in the crowd. One family from Baghdad – a professor at Sulaymaniyah University was there with his wife and two daughters, one of whom was a doctor, the other an engineer - were turned away after being told they could only use the electronic voter ID card in Baghdad.

“Where is Baghdad? I have lived in Sulaymaniyah for seven years,” the father responded, exasperated.

Some of the other Iraqi Arabs standing around said they had been allowed to vote because they had switched the place of issue for their ration card from Baghdad to Sulaymaniyah. “If you switch your card, you can vote,” explained a student from Baghdad who now lives in Iraqi Kurdistan, who wished only to be known as Ahmed. “But most people do not do this because it makes other things very difficult.”

Changing your ration card in Iraq means you have to switch over all of your other administrative documents as well, which can be a real headache considering the state of bureaucracy in Iraq.

For example, one family had switched their place of issue for their ration cards from Baghdad to Sulaymaniyah, where they have lived for the past eight years. However their electronic voter ID cards needed to be picked up in Baghdad - and they did not want to risk going there in person to do that.

“It is dangerous there,” said the head of the family, an engineer. “Why will I go to Baghdad and risk my life, or the life of one of my family members? No, I cannot.”

The other obstacle for the Iraqi Arab voters in Iraqi Kurdistan was apparently bad timing. Special elections were held in Iraq for members of the security forces, military and police, who would be working on the actual election day, two days before the general elections – and at the Jawahiri School, the polling station manager said that Arabs in Iraqi Kurdistan were also supposed to vote on April 28, rather than April 30.

Disgruntled voters waiting outside the school rejected this vehemently. They had never been told this, they said, there had been no media announcement. Although one of the security staff at the school said about a third of registered Iraqi Arab voters had actually turned up on Monday, his claim was refuted by another voter, who said he had come on Monday and been turned away.