U.S. voters cast votes in Iraq election: ‘It’s amazing’

Election worker Robert Yohanna, 2nd from left, checks the IDs of Iraqi citizens wishing to vote in the Assyrian National Council of Illinois in Skokie. Iraqis will vote for governors and members of parliament. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

Iraqi-American Agnes Merza of Morton Grove said she made sure she was first in line Sunday at her local polling place to vote in her home country’s election.

“It’s amazing,” she said after casting her ballot at the Assyrian National Council in Skokie, proudly displaying her ink-stained finger.

The 59-year-old pharmacist, one of nearly 16,000 Assyrian Christians who’ve been in Illinois for decades, said she was in tears watching media coverage of the elections. After leaving Northern Iraq in 1983 to avoid violence, Merza said she didn’t have a chance to take part in elections when she still lived in her home country. “We never had this democracy.”

The Skokie polling place is one of nine spots in the United States and the only Illinois location where the Independent High Electoral Commission oversees “out-of-country” voting, said coordinator Ninous Badeen. Early voting in 13 countries outside Iraq was expected to take place Sunday and Monday, he said. Iraq will host its election Wednesday.

About 9,000 candidates are running for 328 seats in the Parliament, Badeen said. Those 328 representatives will in turn elect the Iraqi President and Prime Minister. “It’s beautiful,” he said, adding the number of candidates has grown since the last election in 2010.

“Now they have options,” he said of Iraqis. “If (a politician) wants to stay in government, you have to perform better.”

Because Merza is an Assyrian Christian, a minority group in Iraq, she was allowed to choose a select number of at-large parliament seats, while Sunni and Shiite Muslims must vote for candidates where their families have geographical ties.

Because of the relatively few U.S. polling places, Badeen said it’s not uncommon for voters to travel long distances. In 2010, he came across a people who traveled from Indiana, Ohio and even Alaska.

On Sunday, many Iraqi-American voters said they felt a responsibility to vote because violence in their home country stops their family and friends from doing so.

One group drove through the night from Lincoln, Neb., to vote Sunday in Skokie. After casting their ballots, they joined other voters outside the polling place, chanting, cheering and holding up their fingers to show the purple ink that indicates they took part in the process. They said it was important for them to show up and have a say in who is governing their home country.

“You guys are used to it,” said Abbas Al-Freji. “We’re not used to it.”

Added Merza: “Even though we’re living here for so many years… that’s still home.”

kthayer@tribune.com | Twitter: @knthayer