If you think voting in a two-party system is tough, try voting in an 83-party system. I'll never complain about voting in a U.S. general election again.
Staring at a ballot written in Arabic with 111 entries, I realized that I have one shot at this. When I step up to the poll this weekend to vote in the Iraqi national election, I will be able to check only one box — one box out of 111 choices.
In the past few days I have tried to tell the difference between the United Iraqi Alliance and the Alliance of Independent Democrats, the National Democratic Party and the National Democratic Alliance, and I've grasped the scope of what a historic event next week's election will be.
This is history in the making: the first time in a generation that Iraqis, from all over the world, will gather to express their political will. From the Kurds in the north, who endured massacre under Saddam Hussein, to Iraqi Christians and other minorities who have long lived without a voice, a new government will be formed.
There are parties and alliances on the ballot that offer everything from democratic-but-Muslim to secular-yet-conservative. Some parties want an alliance with Turkey, others want to bring the old Iraqi monarchy back, and yet others want a Shiite state similar to Iran.
Armed with my voter registration card, after showing proof of my father's birth, I will once again travel to Irvine, Calif., to cast my own vote.
When an election official told me last weekend that the ballot will only be in Arabic, my heart sank into my stomach. Born in the United States, I can't read Arabic. "You're just going to have to do your homework," she told me.
That's what I've been doing, but as I stared at a sample ballot I can't read, it's hard not to be a bit intimidated. Lucky for me each party is associated with a number. My job has been to find sources on the Internet that can tell me which number goes with which party.
Here's how the election will work. Iraqis won't be voting for candidates but rather political parties. Each political party has submitted a list of candidates. Representation from each party will be proportionate to the percentage of the votes they receive.
Here's an example: If one party receives 20 percent of the total election vote, it will get 55 assembly seats out of a total 275 seats. The candidates will be selected from the top of the list down. Those people chosen will then form the Transitional National Assembly, which is charged with three important tasks: drafting an Iraqi constitution, electing a president and two deputy presidents, and legislating/overseeing executive authority.
It's heartening to know that the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, which is overseeing the election, has mandated that one-third of all party candidates must be women. However, I doubt many of the more conservative parties will resist the urge to shove most of their female candidates to the bottom of their lists.
I don't know yet where my check mark will land on this ballot, but I do know that the influence of growing up an American will come into play. I want my vote to go to a party that is secular and democratic. Iraq is a more diverse place than we assume, with many minority groups who would not flourish under a single religious ideology.
Like many Iraqi nationals and Iraqi-Americans, my effort to spend time and money to travel to cast my vote adds weight to my decision. I've got one shot. I've got to make it a good one.