A steady stream of people entered a security checkpoint and walked through a maze of concrete barriers this weekend to do something many people in the United States take for granted.
Many were doing something they had never done before while others were there for the second time, but they all had the same goal — to help shape the future of Iraq’s young democracy by voting in the country’s parliamentary election.
Khalat Mesho, his father, mother and three sisters, cast their votes Friday in Iraq’s second democratic election. They each came out of the recently abandoned Social Security office on Nolensville Road with purple ink-stained index fingers documenting their participation.
Mesho, a Tennessee State University student who runs his own cleaning business, said he first voted in 2005 and will vote “every chance I get.”
To get an idea of just how important voting is to the Iraqi people, one need only look to a nearby mosque that was closed Friday, the equivalent of the Sabbath in the Muslim faith.
“The mosque is closed today so people can come vote,” Mesho said.
Mikail Bendi said he has lived in the United States for 16-17 years. He was hanging out at the polling center although he could not vote — he didn’t have the proper identification.
He said his father, who is in Dohuk, Iraq, one of the most northern cities in Kurdistan, planned to fax a copy of his ID so that he could vote over the weekend.
“There’s nothing better than democracy,” Bendi said. “People have been fighting for a long, long time. We have been waiting, sacrificing for a long time.”
The ebb and flow of voters taking part in Nashville polling seemed much like U.S. elections — periods with long lines followed by periods with little to no waiting.
Hassan Merani, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, estimated 700-800 people voted in Nashville on Friday, but would not reveal a final weekend total.
“They tell us not to give out numbers, but media always want numbers, so I say 10,000 to 12,000,” he said.
Nashville was one of eight cities selected as remote polling sites in the U.S. because of its large Kurdish population.
“There’s very strong community in Nashville, more than everywhere else,” Bendi said, estimating 99 percent of voters in Nashville were Kurdish.
The official Iraq election day was Sunday, but voting in the United States was allowed Friday through Sunday because people had to travel to the polling stations.
At each U.S. polling station, voters used the same paper ballots, envelopes and even the same clear plastic ballot boxes as were used in Iraq.
“We make sure everything done thoroughly and fairly,” Merani said, noting all the ballot books and ballot boxes are numbered to ensure accuracy of the vote.
The colorful, 50-page books of ballots were shipped from Iraq by the Iraqi election commission, Merani said.
“When we finish, we seal and secure them and send to Iraq [to be counted,] Merani said.
Metro police officers provided round-the-clock security at the local election site. The officers were paid by the U.S. State Department, according to spokeswoman Kristin Mumford.
“It’s very important to have security every time,” Mesho said. “We have good tight security.”
With thousands of polling places in Iraq and around the world using paper ballots, the exact figures on voter turnout, as well as the results themselves, won’t be known for days.
“This is the most clean and best election in history of Middle East thanks to the sacrifices of the United States,” Merani said.