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The Moscow Times, December 18, 2003

Tricks of Vote-Fixing Trade

By Boris Kagarlitsky

Following the State Duma elections this month, the opposition conceded that election fraud had been no worse than usual. Communist Party spokesman Ilya Ponomaryov noted with characteristic optimism that vote-rigging at the 1996 presidential election had been officially proven this year, casting doubt on the legality of Boris Yeltsin's second term.

But that no longer matters. Our president is Vladimir Putin, and so far nothing has been officially proven regarding the 2000 election. Ponomaryov reckons that the opposition's claims of voter fraud in this year's election will be officially confirmed by 2009, and everyone will realize that Yabloko should have had representation in the next Duma. The Communists are not afforded even this cold comfort. In their parallel count, the party received even fewer votes than in the official results.

Given the amount of time it takes to set the record straight in Russia, we should get a head start now on documenting voter fraud in the 2007 elections. We already have a pretty good idea how vote-rigging works. Alexander Saly's Duma commission turned up a wealth of useful information, and the parallel vote count at Fairgame.ru has demonstrated its effectiveness.

Until recently, Russian democracy was based on election fraud pluralism. In 1999, some governors lent a helping hand to Unity, others to Fatherland, and some even gave the Communists and SPS a boost. The party of power is now consolidated, however. The governors have been brought into line, and there is every reason to proclaim that democracy is under threat. From now on, the government machine at all levels and in all regions will further a single cause.

Pluralism does remain, however, when it comes to the methods of committing fraud, which vary according to local customs. In one region they deliver the ballot boxes half full, in another the polling stations close early and the staff spend the remaining time filling in the unused ballots. And in some regions they simply forget to open the polls. Chechnya excels in this regard, especially the Vedensky district. An interesting correlation has emerged: When the rebels are active, the party of power receives more votes. Should the armed conflict spread beyond Chechnya in time for the next Duma elections, the party of power will undoubtedly enjoy a resounding victory in the affected regions.

Such flagrant violations don't fly in most regions, although you can fiddle around with the early vote and the mobile ballot boxes; and "dead souls" of one sort or another can easily be added to the voter lists. When an acquaintance of mine turned up to vote she found that an unknown man was registered in her apartment. "Don't worry," said the poll worker who handed her the ballot. "He died a long time ago."

The process of tracking down ghosts is time-consuming but well worth the effort. If the cheats aren't caught red-handed at the polling station, little can be done afterward.

The Communists and Yabloko have been trying for ages to stop the practice of falsifying election protocols. Observers are provided with an official copy of the protocol at the polling station. The originals are forwarded on to the territorial election commissions. Observers then tally up the numbers in their protocols, and the territorial election commissions do the same. They're working with the same documents, but for some reason their totals never coincide. Either everyone involved has suddenly forgotten the rules of arithmetic, or on the contrary they have mastered them completely. If the opposition's allegations of creative accounting are justified, then Russia's mid-level election commissions are staffed by some very talented people.

Votes are stolen from candidates who stand no chance of getting elected, who don't have the resources to monitor the vote effectively, or who are least likely to take their grievances to court. The Fairgame.ru system set up by the Communists works according to the same principles as the official system. And while it is less powerful, and manned by fewer people, it actually worked faster than the official system. Those creative calculations must slow things down a lot.

The 2003 elections were a sort of historical watershed. Thanks to Fairgame, we know how many votes were stolen and from whom. This provides the system's creators with a certain aesthetic pleasure, and the victims of election fraud with a measure of moral satisfaction. But where the elections themselves are concerned, Stalin's inspired principle remains in force: The important thing is not how they vote but how we count.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.


See also:

the original at

State Duma elections 2003

The Moscow Times, December 18, 2003

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