Timonium polling station serves as outpost for Iranian-style democracy

Six volunteers encounter boredom, lively chats on elections, youth vote

June 18, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

For 14 hours, they sat in Chesapeake Conference Room 5 at the Holiday Inn Select in Timonium, knowing that, at best, 100 people would stop by.

But there were no complaints from six volunteers collecting absentee ballots yesterday for the ninth presidential election in their native Iran, even as hours went by when they had nothing to do but read poetry, play games on a cell phone and reflect on the state of democracy.

"All of us who are here would like to see this democratic process take place for the benefit of our birth country," said Masud Salimian, 52, a professor of industrial engineering at Morgan State University and a Timonium resident.

The voting was set up for about 400,000 people in the United States who were born in Iran or born to Iranian parents.

At the Baltimore area's only polling station, the volunteers defended Iran's election, in which seven candidates vied for the presidency, in the face of criticism at home and in the United States. Some Iranians boycotted the election, and the Bush administration called it illegitimate because senior clerics prevented women and some reform candidates from competing.

"The [United States'] Electoral College is the most undemocratic thing you can see, but nobody makes a fuss about that," Salimian said. He believed Iranians needed time to become accustomed to free elections: "In the United States, you have been doing elections for 200 years. In my country, the real elections are less than 25 years."

Kowsar Gowhari, 25, of Gaithersburg said the United States makes matters worse when it tries to impose its own brand of democracy on other countries. "We are passing [from] a very traditional society to a very modern society," the art teacher and photographer said. "We want to experience democracy in our own way."

Hamed Dalili, 23, a student at Montgomery College studying management information systems, said young people in Iran are proud of their participation - in this election in particular, and in politics in general. In Iran, the voting age is 16, and more than two-thirds of the population is younger than 30.

"The younger generation in this country doesn't care," said Dalili, who lived in the United States until age 11, moved to Iran and returned here two years ago. "We had all that `Vote or Die' stuff, but they didn't really show up. People are much more politically involved in our country."

The polling station, which operated from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., was one of two in Maryland and more than 30 across the United States. It was inconspicuous: A sign outside the hotel welcomed CVS pharmacy executives. Yet relying on information mailed by election-advocacy groups and posted on the Internet, Iranians found their way.

Voter Belash Kalantari, 37, a computer engineer from Timonium, was grateful for the volunteers.

"These people are wonderful," he said. "You have to be a part of the decision-making if you care for the well-being of people."

The elder statesman of the volunteers, Salimian brought books by Persian poets Hafiz and Rumi to pass the time. He asked the hotel staff for flowers to cheer up the room.

The staff had asked him whether he wanted security. His answer was a resolute no.

"It's just elections," he said.

Still, at 1:50 p.m., a county police officer stopped by.

Salimian wasn't taking his responsibilities lightly. Every voter had to present an Iranian birth certificate or passport. He forgot his own passport and went home to get it.

Voters also needed to press their fingers on a blank ink pad and leave fingerprints on their ballots, which were deposited in a box. Green hand cloths were available to wipe away the ink.

As the afternoon progressed, Gowhari perused a catalog and doodled on a newspaper. Her husband, 25-year-old Farid Monemi, and fellow volunteer Ali Ebrahim, 46, chatted in Farsi with an elderly voter about a parliamentary leader in Iran who was accused of corruption.

About midday, Dalili also took advantage of the Web access in the hotel lobby to monitor election turnout in Iran, where the time was eight and a half hours ahead.

"28 million," he reported back to the group. He translated another volunteer's response:

"28 million and 35. They haven't counted us yet."

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