Iraq election (one day after): Who is counting the votes?

isomin at isomin at
Sun Oct 16 17:24:45 PDT 2005

I agree with Sandy that many of those who voted for the Constitution probably didn't know much about it. The same could be said for many who voted against it. But this doesn't differentiate the constitutional referendum from most other elections, including in the developed world. Because it is irrational (and time-consuming) for individual voters to invest a lot of time and effort in learning about political issues, most end up not doing so and instead relying on intuition, information "shortcuts" and so on. In the name of shameless self-promotion, I note that I have written about this subject extensively. See, e.g., my article Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian difficulty, 89 Iowa L. Rev. 1287 (2004).

Certainly, the Iraqi referendum was no worse in this respect than the referenda on the European constitution, which was several hundred pages long and full of technical language inaccessible to the vast majority of voters. Indeed, as I learned when I was in France and Spain just before the referendum, even many European legal elites had serious disagreements about the "true" meaning of the proposed constitution. By comparison with the proposed EU Constitution, the proposed Iraqi constitution is FAR shorter (about 10-20 pp., if I recall correctly), and more accessible.

While we do not have survey data from the time of the adoption of the US Constitution, I highly doubt that the majority of voters clearly understood all the major provisions of that Constitution. And even to the extent they did, it is worth noting that in key states such as NY and Massachusetts, the voters elected a majority of anti-Federalist delegates to the ratifying conventions, some of whom then proceeded to defect to the Federalist side. So it is far from clear that the original US Constitution had strong majority support in all the key states (had NY and Mass. rejected the Constitution, it would likely have gone down to defeat).

What does all this mean for the Iraqi referendum? In my view, it suggests that we cannot expect the average Iraqi voter to have detailed knowledge of the draft. What we can hope for is that the referendum can prevent the interests of any major group (Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, women, etc.) from being flagrantly disregarded in an obvious way.
The constitutional referendum is more an exercise in minimalistic Schumpeterian democracy (where voters can reject candidates or proposals that have deep and obvious flaws) than a high-level form of "deliberative democracy" of the kind that some academics favor.

The draft constitution is not without its significant flaws, but it does give considerable protection to Sunni interests by 1) giving them a share of oil revenue proportional to their population, 2) allowing provinces a high degree of autonomy, thereby enabling the Sunnis to have control of areas where they are in the majority, and 3) giving Sunni provinces quasi-veto power over the constitution's adoption (as indicated by the 2/3 rule in 3 provinces rule).

This will not be enough to conciliate those of the Sunnis who will settle for nothing less than a return to Sunni control of the whole country. But it may (and to a limited degree already has) conciliate those who merely want to avoid total domination by the Shiite-Kurd coalition.

Ilya Somin
Assistant Professor of Law
George Mason University School of Law
3301 Fairfax Dr.
Arlington, VA 22201
ph: 703-993-8069
fax: 703-993-8202
e-mail: isomin at

----- Original Message -----
From: Sanford Levinson <SLevinson at>
Date: Sunday, October 16, 2005 7:31 pm
Subject: RE: Iraq election (one day after):  Who is counting the votes?

> From tomorrow's NYTimes (I think):
> A Sunni, Mr. Ismail said he had voted for the constitution, despite
> appeals by many Sunni leaders for it to be rejected, and threats from
> Islamic militants to kill anybody participating in it. He said he did
> not really know what was in the constitution, but the fact that his
> opinion had been sought was enough for him to back it. "It gives 
> me hope
> in God, and in my fellow men," he said. As for the insurgents, he 
> said,they were "infidels," and added, "I don't accept them."
> I think this captures a great deal of the complexity.  One must 
> respectMr. Ismail greatly for voting at all.  But what does his 
> vote actually
> tell us about his support for what is in the constitution?  And 
> does it
> matter?  In what sense is "his opinion [being] sought"?  And what,
> exactly, is his opinion in this context, other than (justified)
> opposition to the insurgents (but is it for the right reason, 
> i.e., that
> they are 'infidels').  The mind reels....
> sandy
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