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The ‘Remote Voters’ in Russia

On Sunday March 4, 2012, the day of the Presidential elections, we returned to Moscow earlier than usual. We left our country home – our dacha – which is located some 30 km outside Moscow, to be at our local polling station in the city before it closed at 8pm. It was inconvenient – I would have preferred to visit the village neighboring our dacha, which has its own local election point, and to place my vote there. But it was impossible to do so because I would have needed an otkrepitelnoe udostoverenie, a ‘remote voting’ certificate (absentee ballot paper) that gives people the right to vote at any polling station in the country if, on the day of the election, they are away from their permanent registered place of residence.

By law, any person may receive this certificate merely by presenting themselves at the election point closest to the place where they are registered as a permanent resident. There, the district electoral authorities issue the certificate and then remove your name from the list of voters at that polling station so that nobody else may use your ballot while you are away. For the voter, getting the certificate should be an easy and routine procedure – you go to your local election point, show your internal passport (i.e. identity document) and get all the paperwork done in a couple of minutes.

All last week, my wife and I repeatedly tried to get one of these certificates from our local electoral commission in the Gagarinskii District of Moscow, as we were planning to spend this Sunday out of the city at our dacha. Each day, we were told that the Commission had run out of blank forms of the certificate and that we should return the next day. We did so until, finally, on Saturday we were told that the Gagarinskii district would not be getting any blank forms before election day and that no other District Electoral Commissions in Moscow had copies of the certificate.

I asked a representative of the district electoral commission where all the forms had gone. He did not know.

‘We haven’t been given any blank forms by our superior commission for a week,’ he told me, ‘and I cannot help you with getting the document’. That was a disappointment but we did not have much time to argue – in any case, the only thing the district commission could offer us was an officially-stamped refusal to issue a certificate, and that would not allow us to vote at any other election point. On Saturday evening we decided to leave the city and reflect on what we could do if we still wanted to participate in the elections.

Many other Muscovites had the same experience last week. Every weekend, a large proportion of the city’s inhabitants head off to their dachas to escape the city’s noise and pollution, to relax, and to tend their gardens. At every previous election the authorities have had no problem supplying this population with the requisite documentation to ensure that the mass of weekend commuters is still able to cast their vote.

However, this time was different.

Not only from personal friends and acquaintances, but all across Russian social networking sites, we are hearing and reading numerous reports citing Moscow’s lack of certificates. Suddenly, no-one could get the document, and tens of thousands of city dwellers faced disenfranchisement.

Moreover, it was not only Moscow that suffered from a shortage of documents. St. Petersburg and many regions have also reported that the Central Electoral Commission’s distribution of certificates was insufficient to cover the needs of the local population. The Head of the Central Electoral Commission – Vladimir Churov – has stated that he was not aware of any problem. His commission printed 2.6 million certificates, presumably calculated on the basis of experience of previous elections.

For my family, there were only two options – not to vote at all or to change our weekend plans and return to Moscow in the early evening before the election points closed. Of course, you may say – so what, that’s no big deal. If you want to exercise your democratic right to vote – just go back and vote. And so we did, as did tens of thousands of others (judging by the afternoon traffic jams on major routes into the city).

But this story is not about our personal schedule, nor even about the experience of so many other voters in Moscow and across Russia, but about the mysterious disappearance of the ‘remote voting’ certificates.

From the very start of Sunday’s election, observers from different parties reported that Moscow City’s polling stations were flooded with people who were voting using absentee ballot certificates. Muscovites noted hundreds of buses arriving in the centre of the city carrying entire police units, battalions of conscript soldiers, officer training cadets, construction workers, and youngsters from the provinces. The majority of these ‘remote voters’ were brought to electoral points in organized units, voted together (often, seemingly under supervision) and, notably, left the polling stations as a group.

There are documented reports that many of these organized bands of balloters turned up in their buses to cast their vote at more than one polling station, in a procedure, well-known from previous elections, called the ‘carousel’. Voting more than once is a violation of electoral law.

All of these travelling voters were using officially-issued ‘remote voting’ certificates – the same forms we were unable to get from our district commission last week. At some Moscow polling stations, the number of ‘remote voters’ exceeded the normal proportion observed in previous years by several times.

At Polling Station No. 153 in central Moscow, of 1428 votes cast, 420 (29.4 per cent) were cast by non-local residents, of whom most were Interior Ministry policemen in possession of ‘remote voting’ certificates. The largest contingent of these comprised tough-looking riot police from the Urals city of Magnitogorsk. They had been sent to Moscow to reinforce local law-enforcement units (presumably, in case of protests following the election). Their use of the right to an absentee ballot was therefore fully legitimate.

For the authorities, it was also convenient. Provisional official results for this voting district indicate that Putin garnered 40.5 per cent of the vote, against 31.7 per cent cast for Prokhorov, the oligarch who was purportedly standing ‘against’ the current Prime Minister, and yet is, many people believe, a quasi-Kremlin project, and 15.7 per cent for Ziuganov, the communist candidate. Overall, Putin’s vote in Moscow fell short of a majority, at 46.96 per cent (against Prokhorov’s 20.44 per cent). Without the timely appearance of the military, police and other ‘electoral tourists’, Putin would likely have come in second place across many if not most Moscow districts.

The Russian opposition made a huge effort on Sunday to recruit electoral monitors to cover as many election points as possible. They were briefed especially to look out for the illegal ‘carousels’, as well as violations of the counting and calculation of votes. But so long as a ‘remote voting’ certificate has been legally issued, it’s entirely within the law for its bearer to cast their a vote wherever they find themselves on the day of the election – so long as they do this only once.

The distribution of reported violations, however, indicate clearly that the proportion of ‘remote voting’ has been highest in large cities, especially Moscow and St. Petersburg, where support for Putin is less strong than in smaller cities, towns and rural areas. Combined with reports of the huge organized influx of non-Muscovites on the day of the election to cast these votes, the obvious inference is that the authorities were implementing a plan to bolster Putin’s results in the more precarious electoral districts.

One Russian journalist has stated that ‘these absentee certificates were this election’s great innovation’. In her opinion, this technique gave ‘the Kremlin armies of voters freed from their place of residence, and therefore making it impossible to make sure they only vote once.’

If already by the start of last week a proportion of the 2.6 million ‘remote voting’ certificates – it is impossible, at least for now, to estimate how many – had been reserved for mobilized groups of itinerant voters, it becomes clear why supplies ran out for normal private citizens such as ourselves.

Alexander Shatikov

Telecommunications consultant, Moscow.

Published inEuropean PoliticsInternational PoliticsRussiaRussia 2012

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