A Primer on Iran’s Presidential Election System

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Homeyra Mokhtarzada

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Iran’s Presidential election is set for June 12, 2009. With much domestic and international attention focused on what could be pivotal elections, the following is a primer on the Presidential election system of Iran.

Iran has had an election of some type almost every year since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The administration of these elections is decentralized and a grass-roots operation.

Iran’s various elections are governed by both the constitution and specific electoral laws. According to the Presidential Election Law, Iran has two main bodies involved in the electoral process – the Guardian Council and the Ministry of Interior (MoI). The MoI is responsible for administration of elections while the Guardian Council is mandated with a broad supervisory role.

Election Administration

Approximately three months prior to the presidential election, the MoI’s Election Centre becomes operational. Iran is made up of 669 districts forming 330 counties that make up the 30 provinces of the country. Each district is headed by a District Administrator, each county is headed by a Governor. At each level, appointees of the MoI are responsible for the grass-roots organization that implements elections. In addition, prior to the election, Election Executive Committees are formed at each level. By law, these Committees are constituted of a Governor/District Administrator (who chairs the Committee), the county/district prosecutor, the head of the civil registration office and eight members of the public.

Election Executive Committees are responsible for:

•    Deciding the number and location of polling stations
•    Informing the public about elections including the election date, voting hours, voting qualifications and voting station locations
•    Selecting eight public representatives for the Election Executive Committees
•    Evaluating election complaints

The full Election Executive Committee at the district level assigns poll workers for each polling station. The polling station team is composed of a chief, a deputy and 3 secretaries. In addition to this five-member team, the Governor of each county assigns a sixth person to each polling station.

Election Supervision

For each presidential election, the Guardian Council establishes a Central Supervisory Committee made up of two members of the Guardian Council and five individuals chosen by consensus by the Council.

The Central Supervisory Committee selects a supervisor for each county and together they:

•    Assign representatives to every polling station
•    Supervise the overall quality of the elections, including monitoring for fraud

Meantime, the Guardian Council reserves the right to nullify or suspend the election throughout all of Iran or just in a specific region or polling station if the election or components of the election are deemed to have been fraudulent.

Becoming a candidate

Iran’s president serves a 4-year term. There are general requirements for candidacy which include: the candidate be of Iranian origin, they be a citizen of Iran, they be reputable and qualified to be care-takers of the Republic, they be thoughtful and possess management abilities, they believe in Islam and the principles of the Islamic Republic and lastly, they be persons with a record of religious and political affiliation

Because additional requirements such as age or education are not specifically mandated, there are typically hundreds, if not thousands, of people who register to be a candidate in the presidential elections. However, registration does not guarantee the ability to run for the office.

Once candidates register with the MoI, the Ministry sends the list of names to the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council then vets the list according to the requirements laid out in the law. In this way, many people can be disqualified for lacking the requisite qualifications. While the Guardian Council is vetting the candidate list, candidates also have the opportunity to submit information or testimonials that confirm their eligibility and qualifications. Once the Guardian Council completes its vetting, a final list of candidates is sent to the MoI, which publishes the list.


The publication of the names of the candidates marks the start of the official campaign period. Campaigning ends 24 hours before Election Day.

To ensure all candidates benefit equally from the State’s resources, the MoI establishes an Election Campaign Monitoring Commission. The members of this commission include the Attorney General or his/her representative, the Interior Minister or his/her representative, the managing director of the state media or his/her representative and a representative of the Guardian Council. According to the law, every candidate has equal access to State media for purposes of campaigning.

Some provisions governing campaigns include:

•    Government employees cannot campaign for or against candidates
•    It is illegal to destroy the posters or ads of any candidates during the campaign period
•    Candidates and their supporters are prohibited from insulting or defaming other candidates
•    Election officials are barred from campaigning for candidates

Voting in Iran

In Iran, there is no voter registration or roll. Iranians can vote anywhere as long as they present their national identification book, or Shenasnameh. The system is set up to prevent fraud at a number of levels, starting with voting procedures.

Iran has a two-part ballot – the ballot itself and a stub portion. When a voter enters the polling station, there is a check of their shenasnameh for authenticity to ensure the voter is eligible to vote (the voting age in Iran is 16) and that the voter has not already voted in the election. For every election in Iran, there is a unique ink stamp which is stamped into a voter’s shenasnameh. This latter check is based on an examination of the shenasnameh to ensure there is not already a stamp from the current election in the booklet.

The voter’s information, consisting of basic biographical data, is then entered onto the stub portion of the ballot. It is important to note that the stub, once detached from the ballot, cannot be matched to the ballot. There are no serial numbers or any other markings that tie the two parts together. Thus, it is realistically impossible to know for whom a voter cast a ballot.

Once the stub portion of the ballot is completed and the shenasnameh stamped, the stub is separated from the ballot and deposited into a box where all the stubs are collected. The voter then proceeds to the voting station, fills in the name of their desired candidate, folds the ballot in half and casts their ballot in a ballot box.

The Count

Polling stations in Iran are typically open from 8am to 8pm. These hours can be extended by the MoI if the turnout warrants it.

Once the polling station is closed, the counting process begins. Polling station officials first count the ballot stubs, followed by the ballots. If the number of stubs and ballots are equal, then the actual vote count begins. If there are more votes than ballots, then the difference is randomly selected from the ballot box and the votes cancelled, then the ballots are counted. In cases where there are more stubs than ballots, the discrepancy is reported and the votes are counted.

Once the votes are counted and results tallied, the official results are certified, all ballots are returned to the ballot box, which is then sealed and officially transferred to the Executive Committee.

It is important to note that neither the general public nor outside entities are permitted to officially monitor the elections. However, candidate agents may be present at every polling station during the voting hours and during the vote count. Additionally, they may attend every Election Executive Committee meeting during the election period.

Determining the Winner

The Iranian President is determined through an absolute majority. In other words, the person with 50%+1 of the votes is the winner. However, in cases where there is no absolute majority, the law calls for a runoff election between the top two vote getters. The runoff election is mandated to take place within one week of the first round of elections.

Once a winner is determined, the Guardian Council approves the election process and the Supreme Leader signs off on the Letter of Presidency. The new president takes the oath of office before the Iranian Majles (Parliament).

Homeyra Mokhtarzada is a Programme Manager specializing in Afghanistan and Iran with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.


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