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StatementOur AssessmentRussian Federation21 September 2021, 11:16
Коллаж: Ксения Тельманова

Almost 4.5 thousand electoral campaigns took place on the Single Voting Day of 19 September 2021 in Russia, including the election of the State Duma, direct elections of heads in nine regions, elections of 39 regional legislatures, and local elections. 

Golos ran long-term and short-term observation of all stages of the campaign. 

Six analytical reports were produced on results of long-term observation: on campaigning and voter mobilisation, on candidate nomination and registration at main regional and local elections, on candidate nomination and registration at the State Duma election, on infringements on electoral rights of Russian citizens, on legal peculiarities of the State Duma election (rus), and on political and legal peculiarities of regional and local elections (rus).

Golos obtained information from observers, members of electoral commissions, media representatives, voters, candidates, parties, and partner observation groups via multiple channels, including hotline 8 800 333 33 50, The Map of Violations, and the web.  

In the course of the elections, the united call centre’s hotline received 5,943 calls (the total time of consultations 11 days 6 hours and 51 minutes). The Map of Violations received 4,973 notifications in the course of the campaign by noon 20 September, Moscow time, including 3,787 on the voting days. 

When assessing elections, Golos is guided by constitutional and international standards that are accepted by Russia, which assume that free elections are those conducted in a free and competitive campaign, with equal opportunities for participating candidates, while the voting results are obtained via free participation of voters and enable establishing the real will of voters with certainty. Freedoms of expression, association and assembly are seen as a mandatory condition for free articulation of the will of voters.  

Regretfully, in its primary assessment of the current elections, Golos movement has to state that it cannot consider them genuinely free and fully compliant neither with the Constitution and legislation of the Russian Federation nor with the international electoral standards. The results are obtained in an unfree and unequal electoral campaign, while the passive electoral rights of a significant number of citizens were limited. This prevents us from asserting that the real will of voters was articulated in a free electoral campaign. Violations during voting and vote-count and the three-day procedure of voting undermine the trust in reliability of the results produced by the system of electoral commissions. Moreover, we believe the way the vote-count was conducted in a number of regions has also largely distorted the outcome. 

The legislation was strongly modified in 2020-2021, leading to de facto deprivation of an opportunity to stand for elections for many politically active citizens who were in opposition to the incumbent power holders, which is at odds with the Constitution. The ballot sheets were cleaned off some part of Russia’s political spectrum, inherently preventing a large number of Russian citizens from electing their representatives. 

The state monopolisation of media and political bias of courts and electoral commissions resulted in a manifold advantage of the main political actor, the administration, in the campaign, which in fact was in a violation of the electoral legislation. 

On the voting days, some regions saw violations indicating the return of the practice of direct fraud, such as expulsion of observers, restriction of access to information, and breech of procedures, which all resulted in distortion of the outcome of voting. 

The documented facts of fraud and violations in procedures, including in the vote-count, demand further verification, including detailed analysis of video recordings from polling stations. It is only after the analysis when the final assessment of the vote-count results is possible. 

1. General assessment of the electoral campaign preceding the voting days 

The previous electoral campaign was characterised by following peculiarities. 

1.1. Restriction of passive electoral rights

The system established in Russia by 2021 enables arbitrary deprivation of citizens’ rights to stand for election by the incumbent authorities. The situation has grossly deteriorated compared to 2016, when the previous State Duma election was held. In addition to the previous eligibility barriers, such as the second citizenship, residence permit or foreign financial instruments, criminal record for grave and particularly grave crimes, and some administrative offences, new ones were added: criminal record for medium-gravity crimes and ‘involvement’ in organisations designated as ‘extremist’. In total, 9 million Russian citizens lost their constitutional right to be elected to state authorities and local self-government. 

1.2. Manipulations of legislation in run-up to elections 

According to the international standards accepted by Russia, the stability of electoral legislation is among key preconditions for free and democratic elections. It is necessary to prevent the power holders from manipulating the rules to advance their own interests. 

In reality, the number and density of significant amendments, passed within months prior to the launch of the elections, indicate non-compliance with the principle of legislation stability as a guarantee against abuse of power. The major bulk of novelties adopted in 2018 to 2021 seek to diminish the political competition at election and facilitate fraud. Consequently, the electoral law has significantly deteriorated since the previous election of the State Duma of Russia in 2016. 

1.3. Loss of independence of electoral commissions 

Once established as dedicated bodies to defend electoral rights of voters, electoral commissions are gradually losing their agency. In this campaign, executive and security bodies de facto took a role of vetting to-be candidates as one of the main actor in the primary filtration of unwanted candidates. The electoral commissions either try to distance themselves from defending electoral rights of citizens or serve as an accomplice. 

1.4. The reduction in number of registered candidates 

While the status of a candidate gives close to no advantages, and amidst increasing barriers for candidate registration and growing risks associated with participation in elections and in politics in general, citizens are much more hesitant to nominate their candidacies for the State Duma election. Potential candidates realise that the authorities possess tools for arbitrary denial of registration. While registration via signature collection appeared close to impossible, the parties were under pressure. As a result, some strong potential candidates decided not to run, failed or were denied access. In some cases, strong candidates in single-seat districts would withdraw from the race after obtaining the registration. 

The number of candidates to drop out of party lists is well above the level of 2016, while the number and share of the registered self-nominated candidates have hit the low of 2016. As a result, the number of registered single-seat candidates also dwindled since 2016.

1.5. Government’s opposition to the freedom of information 

Free and meaningful public political debate is a prerequisite for articulating the free will of voters. However, despite its Constitution, Russia has been seeing an emerging system of state censorship and total propaganda in media for years. The current electoral campaign was not an exception, as the frequency of mentioning and the total broadcasting time given to the United Russia on central TV stations were equal to those given to other parties altogether, and exceeded them all manifold in some periods. By these indicators, CPRF is 4 to 5 times behind. Websites of authorities and local self-government bodies as well as information channels of public institutions joined media in distorting the information field.  

In parallel, these elections were under stronger influence of another environment with more freedom, primarily relying on the remaining independent media and social media. Despite authorities’ serious efforts towards domination of the social media, too, alternative viewpoints were quite broadly represented. This particularity makes this election different from the previous one by adding more equal public presentation of parties. Rather than a merit of the government, which is obliged to defend rights and freedoms of citizens by the Constitution of Russia, it is thanks to the changing context that the state propaganda machine is gradually losing in impact. The problems the government is facing in controlling the public opinion might be a reason for its increasingly repressive practices in managing the information space.

1.6. Breeching principles of transparency in publishing information about activities of electoral commissions 

The legislation proclaims the principle of transparency and openness in activities of electoral commissions. This is really a key factor in ensuring public trust in the outcome of elections. Unfortunately, this is another consecutive electoral race, during which CEC Russia is making more steps away from this principle, despite frequently proclaimed efforts to promote the election transparency. 

In particular, requirements to technological, software and linguistic utilities of websites of electoral commissions changed in September 2021. The function of search and copying fragments of text on the website was replaced with the function of preview. The requirement to upload regulations and other documents “in format enabling users to save them on their devices and, after saving, to search and copy any fragment of the text by an appropriate preview software (‘document in electronic form’) and, additionally, as graphic images” was removed. The requirement to ensure a possibility of automatic processing was lifted in 2019, while the requirement to protect the websites of electoral commissions from tools of automatic processing was added in 2021. 

During recent days, CEC Russia coded the results of previous and current elections in the public version of the State Automated System Elections (GAS Vybory) on so that the data of election protocols cannot be copied. While copy pasting, numbers transform into letters. On 17 September, also introduced a rigid preview limit of 30 PEC protocols per user, followed by blocking if exceeded. The website became so slow in the morning of 20 September that it was virtually impossible to use. 

In addition, CEC Russia shifted to the practice of publishing protocol data from GAS Vybory with a substantial time lag after publicising the aggregated data in the information centre of CEC Russia. 

The prohibition of public video streams from polling stations came as another way of concealing important public information. 

1.7. Pressure on journalists and observers 

In run-up to the voting day, the government stepped up pressure on independent observers and journalists, most visible in designation of movement Golos, a number of media and individual journalists as so-called ‘foreign agents’, blocking information resources, and labelling an investigative outlet Project as an ‘undesirable organisation’. This was accompanied by an orchestrated state-led smear campaign against citizen observation. As a part of it, central TV stations and other big media, and members of public chambers and electoral commissions would circulate sham videos and other false information from anonymous Telegram channels without any verification. 

2. Preliminary findings of observation on voting days (17–19 September) 

Independent observers noted the following main peculiarities of the voting days. 

 2.1. Growing burden on commission members and observers due to the three-day voting

The level of openness and transparency of the electoral system has obviously decreased. Overseeing the three days of voting exhausts the commission members and observers. By the end of Day 3, many experience natural fatigue, and their vigilance and reaction speed subside. 

Simultaneously, a visible trend is to imitate the public watchdogging by engaging quasi-NGOs and propaganda groups. In an imitation of frenzied activities, the groups declare that they have trained huge numbers of observers who are present at all polling stations. In fact, however, observers delegated by public chambers appear to be staff of public institutions or administration-affiliated civil society, frequently members of the United Russia, who might also be used for counteracting genuine citizen observation. 

2.2. Lack of possibility for public to check the integrity of e-voting

In its Decision dated by 22 April 2013 #8-P, the Constitutional Court of Russia noted that the right of citizens to participate in state governance goes beyond free voting per se. As associated participants of the people’s sovereignty, citizens shall be recognised to be entitled to overseeing the procedures of vote-count and establishing the voting outcome, as well as a possibility of legitimate response to revealed violations. Therefore, the Constitutional Court of Russia indicates the inalienability of the citizens’ right to exercise oversight of the procedures of expression of will. This representation is designed to guarantee the legitimacy of voting decisions in the minds of both their supporters and opponents. 

However, the legislator has not provided effective tools for citizens to exercise this constitutional right in the case of remote online voting. The system of voting and vote-count is non-transparent even for people with special IT knowledge, leave alone the rest of voters. Therefore, the current system of e-voting is not in line with high standards on accountability of electoral procedure to the public. 

The Portal failures on the first voting day undermined the trust in the online voting system even further. While a significant share of voters faced challenges in exercising their active electoral right throughout the three days of voting, the vote-count unexplainably extended into the morning of 20 September. 

2.3. Coercion to vote

A phenomenon incompatible with free choice, coercion to vote is a problem of Russian elections, unaddressed for years. However, the introduction of three-day and online voting created more tools for coercion. 

The multiday voting enabled many employers to supervise the electoral participation of their staff, something exemplified by huge crowds of voters that took hours for commissions to serve early in the morning of Friday, 17 September, in many polling stations across the country. 

In the context of coercion and lack of trust in the system, e-voting also facilitated manipulating choices of voters who fell under influence of employers or authorities. Given the lack of understanding about the system, many citizens had fears that their superiors would see how they voted. 

2.4. Incompliance with procedures of voting, documentation storage and vote-count 

As the Constitutional Court of Russia established in its Determination #1575-O dated by 25 June 2019, the legislator shall take due care to ensure that “electoral procedures that it introduces are fair and transparent, prevent possibility of falsification of the outcome of electoral process, and facilitate objective and reliable reflection of actual results of citizens’ electoral volition”. The Constitutional Court has also noted that consistent fulfilment of requirements established by law was in essence the only way to eliminate a possibility of inaccurate calculation (miscalculation) of votes and wrong (incorrect) reflection thereof in the final voting protocol. 

However, many commissions easily skipped procedures at all stages, including the voting days, storage of ballot sheets and documents in the night, and during the vote-count. Observers and commission members from across the country sent notifications about such violations over the entire period of voting and vote-count in vast numbers. As a result, it was impossible to check the integrity of voting results even in cases when commissions had no ill will (to say nothing about situations when ill will was present). Because of this, the public has virtually no opportunity to double check and assure itself that the elections results are fair.   

2.5. Obstructing observers, commission members and media, and power game tactics 

During these days, the system of electoral commissions opposed the observers as fiercely as never since at least five years. Methods used included expulsions from polling stations, including police-assisted measures with no court decision, threats to life and health, property damage, and even physical assault attempts by unidentified individuals, tolerated by both the police and electoral commission members (beatings, blocking cars, obstacles in accessing polling stations etc.).  

In fact, the three days between 17 and 19 September in many regions annulled the multiannual measures by the previous membership of CEC Russia towards normalisation in relations between commissions and observers. Particularly outstanding were Moscow Oblast, Saint Petersburg, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Krasnodar Krai. Alarming are facts of non-interference of police in cases of violence by organised groups, as if the government had delegated its violence monopoly to unknown persons. 

2.6. Mobile voting issues

Mobile voting (home voting) remains in place as an administrative technology for altering the outcomes of voting. Without expressing their will to vote at home, many persons were engaged in home-voting. Proxy voting is another practice associated with home voting. Rather than composing their own list of home voting applications voluntarily submitted by voters, most electoral commissions rely on lists shared by the executive and social welfare bodies. 

Some precinct electoral commissions displayed unrealistic numbers of home-voters. This practice also facilitated direct fraud and falsification of voter participation. In a number of polling stations, cases of cancellation of home-voting results are documented. 

2.7. Stuffing, proxy voting and multiple voting 

Symptomatically, the most alarming notifications about pressure on observers, commission members, media, and candidates, came from regions where fraud was traditionally common. This time was not different in terms of high numbers of notifications about possible cases of ballot box stuffing, multiple voting or proxy voting. Observers reported cases of late night intrusions into polling stations, and removals of seals, stamps and safe packages. Throughout the voting days, proxy-voting notifications came from numerous regions. 

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