Fighting voter fraud in Russia: the “watchmen” of election day

(Photo credit: Giovanni Pigni)

St Petersburg poll watchers prepare to face imminent voter fraud in the upcoming elections on 10 September

It is election day in the outskirts of St Petersburg. Near one polling station, somebody is buying people’s votes in exchange for vodka shots. In another district, the ballot box disappears from the polling station. Closeby, a pack of bulletins gets stolen and is set on fire. These are just a few examples of common violations witnessed by poll watchers from the Watchers of St Petersburg non-profit organisation.

“Being a poll watcher may seem boring. People come, cast their vote, and leave. It is the same scene for several hours. But the flux of people coming and going is not what you should focus on. You should pay attention to whether there are unauthorised people in the poll station, what the commission is doing with the documents, even what is going on in the neighbouring courtyard. And that’s when it gets interesting” explains Galina Kultyasova, a Watchers of St Petersburg representative.

The organisation was founded in 2012, when a spontaneous group of people became outraged by the mass falsifications that took place in the preceding State Duma and presidential elections. Today, their goal is to protect citizens’ electoral rights and to contribute to the development of civil society. In practice, they document irregularities in the election process and ensure that votes are counted correctly. Since 2012, the organisation has sent its volunteers all over the Northwestern Federal District to follow elections at various levels. Some of the members have experience as international poll watchers at elections in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and even the Netherlands.

According to Kultyasova, the main factor that allows irregularities to happen is the incompetence of local election committees. “Members of the commission don’t know the legislation so they don’t understand what they are doing. They get chosen on purpose so that they can be easily manipulated.” Also, committee members are mostly state employees, which, according to the activists, compromises their impartiality.

As Novaya Gazeta reported in a recent investigation, Watchers of St Petersburg helped uncover multiple voter fraud schemes that involved members of local commissions at State Duma elections held in September last year.

Achieving fair elections in a country affected by endemic corruption like Russia seems to be an idealistic goal. However, according to Kultyasova, gradual improvements are taking place. “Our weapon is publicity: when we talk about the violations going on, perpetrators get scared and they are forced to stop their schemes. For instance, during the 2012 elections, United Russia collected thousands of votes in St Petersburg through fake poll stations which existed only on paper. Since we brought this scandal to the attention of the public, violations on such a massive scale never happened again,” she says.

On the 10th of September, elections will be held at different levels across the Northwestern Federal District, including Leningrad Oblast, Pskov Oblast, and Karelia. Watchers of St Petersburg gathered volunteers from all over the region willing to travel to the different locations where elections will take place. The organisation holds seminars and workshops where newcomers are taught how to write complaints to the election committee and how to guarantee transparent vote tallying. On election day, a call centre will be established in the organisation’s headquarters, where a group of volunteers will be in constant touch with the poll watchers, updating the press on violations in real time.

Galina Kultyasova explains the basics of election procedure (Photo credit: Giovanni Pigni)

“This summer I decided to join Navalny’s campaign as a volunteer and I realised how widespread violations are at all levels: the district administration, judges, city government…More activism is needed in order to bring all this to the attention of the public” says Natasha, a student without any previous experience in poll watching.

Timofey, 22, and Mikhail, 21, are getting ready to become poll watchers in the Lomonosov district. “Vote forging is happening everywhere. That is why we decide to give our contribution, to prepare ourselves for next year’s presidential elections, when the future of our country will be at stake,” Mikhail says.

“It doesn’t matter how many times we go to vote, the outcome is always the same: United Russia,” complains Edward, another volunteer. “I decided to figure out how fair these elections are, how many people are really going to the polls and for whom they are really voting for,” he continues. Edward and his wife, Shakhnas, already attended the municipal elections recently held in the village of Staraya Rus’ in Novgorod Oblast, where they witnessed several irregularities. “An accredited journalist was denied access to the polling station and a poll watcher was forced to leave because of pressure from the head of the election committee,” Edward recalls. Shakhnas laments widespread bribery taking place in Fedorovsky, the couple’s’ home village: “Some candidates go around the village, offering foodstuffs to old ladies: chocolates, biscuits and so on. That usually happens before election day, making this kind of bribery difficult to detect.”

Most of the Watchers of St Petersburg volunteers we talked to said they will be supporting opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who is basing his election campaign on the fight against corruption. However, one of the pillars on which Watchers of St Petersburg founds its reputation is political neutrality. “Each one of us has the right to support the party he wants, but that should not influence the activity of the organisation,” points out Kultyasova. “Some people consider us an oppositional movement, since the vote frauds we try to prevent always favour the ruling party. But still, there is a difference which many don’t understand: we do not promote an oppositional political agenda; our duty is making sure that election procedures are respected.”

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