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StatementOur AssessmentRussian Federation11 September 2023, 15:24
Collage: Ksenia Telmanova

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Table of contents

1. Characteristic features of the past election campaign

2. Preliminary results of observation on voting days September 8-10

On the single voting day on September 10, 2023, 4,295 election campaigns took place across Russia, including by-elections of State Duma deputies in four districts, direct elections of heads of 21 regions, elections of deputies of 16 regional parliaments, 12 city councils of regional capitals, as well as elections in the territories of the “special military operation zone” and numerous local elections.

Representatives of the "Golos" movement carried out observation at all stages of the election campaign.

As a result of long-term observation, five analytical reports were produced: on the legal features of the current elections, the results of the nomination and registration of candidates for heads of regions, the results of the nomination and registration of candidates for deputies of the largest representative bodies, on election campaigning and administrative mobilization of voters. During the voting days of September 8-10, Golos published express reviews and was running the “Voting Chronicle”. Details that informed this Statement can be found in the materials listed above.

 “Golos” was receiving the information from observers, election commissions members, media representatives, voters, candidates, parties and party organizations through various channels, including the 8 800 500-54-62 hotline, “Map of Violations”, and the Internet. 

In total, during the elections, 214 calls were received to the hotline (the total call time of operators was 12 hours and 24 minutes). As of September 11, 9:30 am Moscow time, 1057 reports were submitted to the “Map of Violations”, including 543 during the voting days.

In its assessment of the elections “Golos” is guided by the provisions of the current Russian Constitution and international electoral standards recognized by Russia, which establish that free elections are the ultimate expression of the will of the people, are held in a competitive campaign, with equal opportunities for candidates, with the free participation of voters, while the voting and counting procedures make it possible to reliably determine the real will of voters. Freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly are also recognized as the mandatory conditions for the free formation of the will of voters.

In its provisional evaluation of these elections, the “Golos” movement must but report that the situation with the possibility of exercising the electoral rights by the citizens has significantly worsened, even compared to the low bar set by the elections five years ago, when the previous compositions of state authorities and local self-government were elected. The 2023 elections turned out to be even less free and fair.

This year's campaign is characterized by: centralized propaganda that establishes state-approved ideology as the only true narrative; censorship; forceful suppression of manifestations of dissent; open and sometimes even demonstrative use of administrative resources in the interests of the United Russia party and its candidates; direct coercion of administratively dependent categories of voters not just to vote, but to vote for specific candidates. All this is accompanied by widespread and unpunished violation of the electoral legislation, the principles of equal and free elections, and the electoral rights of citizens. Separately, we must point to a significant loss of independence of the system of election commissions.

In fact, the campaign took place in a situation where the fundamental articles of the Russian Constitution seems to no longer apply: Article 13, which establishes ideological diversity as the basis of the constitutional order; Articles 2 and 18, establishing that a person, their rights and freedoms are the ultimate value, and it is they who determine the meaning, content and application of laws, the activities of state power and local self-government; Article 25, which guarantees freedom of thought and speech and prohibits censorship; Article 30, guaranteeing freedom of public associations; Article 31 guaranteeing freedom of assembly.

Those in power in Russia are trying to expand the already huge gap separating the formal bearers of sovereignty - Russian citizens - from the real levers of governing the country and the settlements of their residence.

1. Characteristic features of the past election campaign

The past election campaign was characterized by the following features.

1.1. Manipulating the legislation on the eve of elections

The stability of electoral legislation is one of the most important conditions for holding free and democratic elections. This is necessary so that the forces in power cannot manipulate the rules for holding the elections to their own benefit.

Unfortunately, every year Golos must point out significant changes in election rules immediately before the start of the election campaign. In most regions where the most serious amendments to legislation were adopted, the authorities have experienced significant problems in domestic politics in recent years. In six of the 16 regions where elections of regional deputies took place in 2018 and are taking place in 2023, the electoral system has changed significantly: the share of majoritarian mandates has been increased and the share of mandates distributed between party lists has been reduced, and the division of districts has changed almost at the last moment.

All these changes lead to the creation of additional advantages for the leading party and a significant distortion of the representation of citizens. 

1.2. Systematic attempts to make election observation difficult

Generally accepted international standards for free and democratic elections suggest that to ensure transparency, observers during voting should be given the widest possible opportunity to participate in observation. The Constitutional Court of Russia, in particular, indicated that the right of citizens to participate in government is not limited to ensuring free participation in voting alone. The interests of citizens and the state are not identical and may clash. At the same time, citizens are associated participants in popular sovereignty, and therefore it is necessary to recognize their right to control (Resolution of the Constitutional Court of April 22, 2013 No. 8-P). Thus, the Constitutional Court of Russia points to the inalienability of the right of citizens to exercise control over compliance with the procedures for expressing their will. Such representation is intended to guarantee the legitimacy of voting decisions in the eyes of both their supporters and opponents.

However, in reality, the Russian state has made a significant shift the other way over the past year. In recent months, a significant blow has been dealt to the ability of citizens to control the integrity of elections: the status of members of territorial and precinct commissions with the advisory vote (the most convenient and demanded for organizing control at polling stations) was abolished; proxies can no longer be present at polling stations on voting days, there was interference in the activities of media editorial offices: they were limited in the freedom to choose correspondents who will cover the vote count. The CEC of Russia, together with Russian legislators, continued to expand the use of non-transparent forms of voting and introduced new ones: the world’s largest ever use of online voting, the integrity of which is not clear to the citizens; extraterritorial polling stations were created in 81 regions, the commissions in which were created without the participation of representatives of political parties and for which it is extremely difficult to appoint observers. For many years, they have been trying to replace the institute of independent observation with the observers from public chambers controlled by regional authorities and election commissions.

The logical continuation of this tendency to conceal the process of voting and counting of votes the citizens of Russia was the state-sponsored enforcement pressure on public observers. 

On August 17, 2023, the Main Investigation Department of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation for the city of Moscow opened a criminal case under Part 3 of Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (Organization of the activities of a foreign or international non-governmental organization in respect of which a decision was made to recognize its activities as undesirable on the territory of the Russian Federation) against the co-chairman of the “Golos” movement Grigory Melkonyants and other unidentified persons. On the same day at 6 a.m. Moscow time, searches were conducted in different regions at a dozen addresses of current and former participants of the “Golos” movement. During the searches, personal devices, cash, bank cards, travel passports and other documents were confiscated. Grigory Melkonyants was arrested and spent the voting days in a pre-trial detention center.

There is clear readiness of the Russian state to declare Russian election observers undesirable in its country, and it doesn’t hide its motives: the chairman of the State Duma Commission to investigate the facts of interference of foreign states in the internal affairs of Russia, Vasily Piskarev, directly stated that the reason for the persecution are the reports and expert reviews by "Golos", that is, the opinion of Russian citizens about internal Russian affairs. Freedom of thought and speech is a value protected by the Russian Constitution, therefore those who verbally fight interference in sovereignty, in fact deprive this very sovereignty of its bearers — the citizens of Russia.

We are convinced that the real purpose of this attack on “Golos” is to prevent public observation on the eve of the start of the Russian presidential election campaign and during the regional and local elections on September 10. 

1.3. Lack of conditions for conducting free public political discussion

Expression of the free will of voters requires respect of the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens. At the same time, throughout the country there are, de facto, strict restrictions on freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom to form political associations, comparable to those imposed under martial law. In other words, the Russian authorities, by allowing elections to be held under martial law, simply legitimized the existing status quo and officially acknowledged their willingness to ignore their own constitutional standards in ensuring free expression of will.

The channels of free communication between candidates and voters have been largely destroyed.

The media are under severe censorship pressure - the number of blockings and criminal cases against journalists is growing, many editorial offices were forced to shut down, leave the country and completely curtail their regional reporters’ networks.

The right of citizens, as per Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, to assemble peacefully, without weapons, to hold meetings, rallies and demonstrations, processions and picketing, is one of the forms of peaceful constructive public dialogue and a significant manifestation of socio-political freedom of the individual, as the Constitutional Court of Russia points out. It is part of the system of democratic institutions that contribute to identifying and shaping the will and interests of citizens of the Russian Federation (Resolutions of the Constitutional Court dated May 13, 2014 No. 14-P, dated June 18, 2019 No. 24-P). However, during the election campaign, this right is limited under the absurd pretext of the ongoing fight against the COVID-19 epidemic. These restrictions often apply even to such forms of public actions as single pickets and car rallies, which hardly ever posed an epidemiological threat.

Social media, which could partially fill the gap in the space for citizens to openly discuss the country’s problems, are also under pressure: some of them are blocked on Russian territory, while others are under the direct control of the son of the deputy head of the Russian presidential administration in charge of domestic policy.

Conducting traditional campaigning was also difficult: entire circulations of campaign materials was confiscated; voters who were involved in campaigning were at times harassed by the law enforcement; commercial companies would cancel the already paid contracts for advertising campaigns for no good reason.

In general, this year’s elections in many regions do not fulfill one of their main tasks - to ensure public discussion of problems, create conditions for public debate and meaningful decision-making by citizens on the governance of their respective settlements and regions. 

1.4. Increased government pressure, including force, on candidates, observers and voters

Pressure, and even more so violence, are incompatible with freedom of expression. However, one of the main trends this year has been increased pressure on all election participants: parties, candidates, observers and ordinary voters. What is especially alarming is that this pressure is now often exercised as “enforcement”, which is associated with violence, and state-sponsored violence at that. Almost every major opposition political party now has candidates, against whom, right during the election campaign, a criminal or administrative (for example, “extremism”) case was opened, or they were subjected to searches and interrogations.

It is probably the understanding of the likelihood of such problems that was the main reasons for the plummeting willingness of politicians to run in the current elections. Of those who came forward with nominations, some conducted their campaigns in an extremely formal manner, utilizing a minimum of resources.

One of the basic rights of voters is the right to campaign for candidates or parties. However, in this case, citizens faced opposition from law enforcement agencies or threats and influence from unknown actors, including those of an openly criminal nature. 

1.5. Merging of the state and party apparatus of the ruling party

Russian legislation requires state and municipal bodies, budgetary institutions and their officials to observe party and ideological neutrality when carrying out their official duties. In reality, during the current election campaign, information websites of state, municipal, and budgetary institutions, and the groups they created on social media, were actively involved in campaigning for the government officials. The so-called “public support headquarters” of state-sponsored candidates en masse include high-ranking officials, heads of departments, etc. At the same time, during the current election campaign, the heads of budgetary institutions, in contrast with the previous years, have all but stopped being shy to openly campaign for the current heads, deputies, and United Russia members.

Even election commissions were involved in campaigning activities. Often their information events are separated from campaigning and from the intention to control the will of voters by a very thin blurred line, and sometimes this line simply disappears.  

1.6. Loss of independence by the system of election commissions and interference of the federal center in regional and local campaigns

The activities of election commissions organizing elections must be free from interference by external forces. However, this year there were gross violations of this principle: the Central Election Commission, while ignoring the principles of federalism and the powers of the regional commission organizing elections, independently made decisions on the registration of candidates and party lists for elections at the regional level, and also directly threatened members of the regional election commission of Khakassia who objected in these cases. Moreover, the reason for such interference was the poorly concealed desire of informal election organizers to register spoiler candidates in order to distort real competition.

There is growing evidence that the electoral commission system does not control much of what happens within its authority; these things are managed by pother parties. For example, the DEG system is actually not under the control of either the relevant territorial commissions or the higher-level Moscow City Election Commission and the Central Election Commission. In one case, it is actually controlled by the Moscow City Hall, in the other — by Rostelecom. Moreover, members of the Russian Central Election Commission do not always know whether lists of candidates for elections in specific territories have been published on the official portal of the election commissions system and whether they will be published there. 

1.7. Creation of the “special” elections zone and the rollout of “emergency” practices throughout the country

The emergence of the legislative possibility of holding elections in territories with a declared “martial law” has led to the emergence of ad hoc practices for holding them. When organizing elections in the Special military operation zone, some unprecedented norms were applied: not only the names of voters (voter lists) were not known in advance, but not even their approximate number; the actual boundaries of the territory where the elections will be held were unknown, as well as the actual boundaries of the territories where the elected bodies will exercise their powers in the future; extraterritorial election commissions were formed without the participation of representatives of political parties and, in fact, without the possibility of nominating observers to them; ballots were issued according to documents that are not provided for by election legislation.

It is especially worrying that due to the opening of extraterritorial polling stations outside the “Special military zone” (in 81 regions), as well as due to the opening of extraterritorial polling stations in the military conflict zone itself (for voting by residents of Russian regions in their elections), these practices were rolled out across the entire country. 

2. Preliminary results of observation on voting days September 8-10

This section briefly summarizes the findings of independent observation of numerous Golos representatives during the voting days of September 8-10, 2023. The main problems of the single voting day in 2023 were significantly increased pressure on voters, the use of violence and the return of practices of pressure on public inspectors on voting days, large-scale failures in the operation of DEG systems, signs of mass falsification and demonstrative disregard by some members of election commissions for the laws and the rights of candidates and observers and voters. 

2.1. Coercion to vote

Pressure on voters to force them to vote has been increasing over the past few years, and this election was no exception. At the heart of this growing pressure was a combination of multi-day voting and online voting, which this year reached a globally scale.

In a situation of pressure on voters, the DEG practically leaves people no choice: while voting with a paper ballot in a booth they can be sure that their choice will be kept secret, during voting via an online system, the code of which has not been properly pubic-audited, they have reasonable fears that the persons who forced them to vote will have access not only to information about the very fact of voting, but also about the choice they made.

Extension of the voting time to a weekday, Friday, also provides additional opportunities for coercion, since the heads of organizations and institutions can exercise control over their employees much more effectively during working hours than on Sunday.

As a result, “Golos” has been recording abnormally high turnout rates on Friday mornings for several years now. At the same time, the “Map of Violations”, the hotline and the media received reports of forced voting from different parts of the country: from Yakutia, Krasnoyarsk, Primorsky and Khabarovsk Territories, Vladimir, Voronezh, Ivanovo, Lipetsk, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Oryol, Ryazan, Samara, Sverdlovsk regions, as well as Moscow. They came from both budgetary institutions and authorities and local governments, as well as from commercial companies. Some coercive technologies were clearly centralized rather than regional.

2.2 Large-scale disruptions in the operation of remote electronic voting systems (DEG)

“Golos” has repeatedly pointed out that online voting systems at the current level of technology development do not allow for simultaneous compliance with two fundamental principles of voting: its secrecy and the verifiability of the correctness of vote counting. In addition, in both Russian DEG systems, it is impossible for observers, candidates and voters to verify that real voters are voting. In this regard, their use is just not permissible.

But every time these fundamental arguments are further aggravated by technical issues that the system developers fail to address. Moreover, this year both existing Russian DEG systems were plagued by them: the federal one and the one for Moscow.

The federal DEG system has encountered large-scale problems in at least two regions. In the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, some voters received only one “electronic” ballot instead of two. To troubleshoot, voting was interrupted for two hours. In the Novosibirsk region, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation stated that not all voters manage to vote for their candidate the first time, and the head of the regional election commission, Olga Blago, confirmed the issue, pointing out that the commission organizing the elections cannot influence this situation, since it does not control the operation of the system.

In the Moscow DEG system, the problems traditionally turned out to be more noticeable. During the first half of the day on Friday, there were widespread glitches of the electronic voter list (EVL), which caused interruptions and delays in the issuance of ballots. Partly because of this, voters experienced difficulties when voting through electronic voting terminals (EVTs). As a result, in the first half of Friday, queues happened in many Moscow polling stations; voters had to wait to get their ballots and also to be added to the lists, which is why some voters were unable to exercise their right to vote. Some returned to vote on Saturday, but even then, they faced some issues. Those who were unable to vote via EVTs on Friday ran into yet another issue — they were barred from receiving a ballot, although their account should have been unblocked should have occurred one hour after they were unable to receive one on Friday.

A widespread problem was that PECs refused to allow voters to vote using paper ballots. There have been recorded cases of threats and even calling the police due to conflicts over this.

EVL turned out to be an unfit tool. In addition to the issues above, there was another problem when summarizing the results. At many PECs, due to errors in the algorithms for working with voter statuses, there was a mismatch of control numbers: the number of actually issued ballots (which PECs know) and the number of voters who voted, which the electronic list produces, did not match. From the first day of voting, “damaged ballots” appeared in the system for some reason and, accordingly, there were re-issued ballots (voters allegedly got confused when filling them out and asked to have them replaced). This probably turned out to be a manifestation of some more serious underlying error that emerged during computing of the final values in the voting results protocol. Precinct commissions do not control the compilation of the voter list and third-party changes to it, and the changes they make are limited by an algorithm that did not allow them to independently address this issue. Since the counting according the voter list is carried out not by a commission, but automatically, the problem that emerged forced the PEC to outright “massage” the numbers in the protocols, which is plain fraud.

Once again it warrants a separate notice, that it is plain abnormal for the commissions organizing elections (and the system of election commissions in general) to not be in control of the online voting systems. This critically violates the principle of independence in their activities.

2.3 Violation of the rights of commission members, observers, candidates and media representatives; violation of the principle of transparency in the activities of commissions

Even following the results of last year’s elections, “Golos” pointed to the return of the practice of pressure, including by law enforcement, on members of commissions, candidates, observers, proxies and representatives of the media, which the Russian Central Election Commission claimed to be fighting since 2016. In the last three years, interaction with observers has returned to the previously seen confrontational level.

All the problems noted a year ago — en masse attempts to restrict movement, photography and video filming, familiarization with documents; removal from polling stations without a court decision; psychological and enforcement pressure, including by unknown persons — only got worse this year. There has been a significant increase in the number of reports of illegal and unjustified use of force, including by law enforcement officers acting on instructions from commission chairmen. In general, ignoring the legitimate demands of voters, observers, candidates, media representatives and other commission members has become demonstrative in many cases. Many members of election commissions feel they operate with impunity.

Special mention deserves the non-admission of observers appointed by the parties to the premises of the DEG TEC, which was responsible for voting by more than a million voters. The formal reason for non-admission were some FSO “black lists”, which once again raises the question of independence in the activities of election commissions.

The principle of publicity in the activities of election commissions, which implies that one of the tasks of election commissions is to provide comprehensive and prompt information to citizens about what is happening during the election campaign, has been repeatedly violated. For example, in the territories in the “Zone of the Special military operation” where the elections were held, the lists of candidates were not immediately published, and the number of voters was not established until the end of the voting. The numbers of extraterritorial polling stations are also not always indicated in the relevant decisions of the election commissions. Video feeds became practically inaccessible to citizens, and in the Lipetsk region it was turned off also for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation immediately after the party uncovered the case of election fraud. Official data on the voting results on the election commissions web portal were published with a significant delay (later than they appeared in the media), and their copying was artificially made impossible by means of obfuscation.

2.4 Non-observance of voting procedures, storage of election documentation and counting of votes, signs of fraud

It will take some time to assess the extent of fraud in the September 10, 2023 elections. During these voting days, reports of possible falsifications, violations of the rules for storing ballots at night and other non-compliance with procedures were received by “Golos” and the media from a large number of regions: Bashkortostan, Kalmykia, Khakassia, Altai, Krasnodar, Krasnoyarsk and Khabarovsk territories, Amur, Arkhangelsk , Belgorod, Vladimir, Volgograd, Voronezh, Ivanovo, Irkutsk, Leningrad, Lipetsk, Moscow regions, Novgorod, Oryol, Pskov, Rostov, Ryazan, Samara, Saratov, Smolensk, Ulyanovsk and Yaroslavl regions, and Moscow. Fraud as such was reported from at least 13 regions.

As the Constitutional Court of Russia indicated in its Ruling No. 1575-O dated June 25, 2019, the legislator must take the necessary care to ensure that “the electoral procedures they introduce are fair and transparent, prevent the possibility of falsification of the results of the electoral process, and contribute to an objective and reliable reflection of the actual results of the electoral expression of the will of citizens." The Constitutional Court also indicated that only consistent implementation of the requirements established by law essentially leaves no room for inaccurate (erroneous) counting of votes and incorrect reflection of them in the voting results protocols. 

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