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Worst. Damage Control. Ever.

I’ve generally tended to take the position that while the people running Iran are a bunch of reactionary thugs, they’re at least a fairly intelligent bunch of reactionary thugs.

After this revelation on Iranian Press TV, however, I’m not so certain:

Iran’s Guardian Council has admitted that the number of votes collected in 50 cities surpass the number of those eligible to cast ballot in those areas.

The council’s Spokesman Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, who was speaking on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Channel 2 on Sunday, made the remarks in response to complaints filed by Mohsen Rezaei — a defeated candidate in the June 12 Presidential election.

“Statistics provided by Mohsen Rezaei in which he claims more than 100% of those eligible have cast their ballot in 170 cities are not accurate — the incident has happened in only 50 cities,” Kadkhodaei said.

The spokesman, however, said that although the vote tally affected by such an irregularity is over 3 million, “it has yet to be determined whether the amount is decisive in the election results,” reported Khabaronline.

For all the complex series of statistics that have been run on Iran’s election, it’s the simplest that might prove to be the regime’s downfall. More people “voted” than were eligible to vote — in a lot of places. The interior ministry admits to 50 such instances out of the 300+ jurisdictions in which Iran tallied results. That is widespread, prime facie and admitted-to evidence of fraud, and I don’t see how the Guardian Council expects people to buy the argument that whatever caused the tub to overflow in those 50 cities was not also tainting the results throughout the rest of the country. The Chatham House report we linked to earlier today found that there were more “votes” than voters in two entire provinces.

The Interior Ministry will presumably next try to argue that these were irregularities owing to the mere overzealousness of the Iranian people. Perhaps, as happens with some regularity in the United States, people who thought they were eligible to vote but weren’t nevertheless tried to and weren’t screened properly by elections officials. But this explanation doesn’t hold water — voter eligibility is not a tricky matter in Iran. The Statistical Center of Iran reports that, as of the last census, there were some 47.7 million people aged 18 or older in Iran, which is the voting age in that country. By contrast, the widely-cited figure is that there were some 46.2 million eligible voters. Virtually all people aged 18 or older, evidently, are eligible to vote in Iran, which has very few non-citizens (only about 1.6 million according to official estimates).

This leaves only two possibilities: that there was widespread ballot-stuffing or that the results in some or all areas don’t reflect any physical count of the ballots but were fabricated whole hog on a spreadsheet.

The Interior Ministry’s goal here must be one of two things. Either they’re hoping to gain credibility by arguing, in essence: “Sure, there was some fraud! But there weren’t 11 million votes worth of fraud!”, an argument that echoes the Ayatollah’s specious comments from Friday. Or, something has clicked and this is the first step in their starting to throw Ahmadinejad under the bus.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.