On the first day of Russia’s June 25-July 1 vote on 206 proposed constitutional amendments, controversies over polling stations, election observers, and alleged compulsory voting by government employees threatened to cloud an election that could extend President Vladimir Putin’s time in office.
One of the few countries to run a national election amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia, which has the world’s third highest level of official coronavirus cases after the United States and Brazil, faces the challenge of not only conducting, literally, a clean vote, but one, the Kremlin has made clear, that delivers a resounding “Yes” to these amendments.
Up for a single yes-or-no vote, the proposals, already approved by the legislature and Constitutional Court, would prolong the president’s term until 2036, allow the president to appoint Constitutional Court judges and prosecutors, prioritize Russian law over international law, and make heterosexual unions and belief in God part of the constitution.
Under Russian election law, more than 50 percent of Russia’s nearly 144 million registered voters must participate in the vote for the amendments to pass. So far, the Kremlin appears optimistic.
“It’s obvious that the interest in the vote is substantial, but it is too early to draw conclusions,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on June 26.
In the Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod regions, the only two Russian regions allowed to vote online at 2020og.ru, more than 57 percent of the 1.19 million voters with registered Internet ballots, took part on June 25, according to the Central Election Commission.
By contrast, 9.2 percent of registered voters cast roughly 10 million ballots offline during the first day of voting. While some polling stations visited by Current Time were nearly empty, others had lines of state employees waiting to cast ballots.
In Moscow, where COVID-19 infections are the highest, masked polling-station workers hand out facemasks and gloves and take voters’ temperatures in the entrances to voting places, which contain at least one police officer. Eight voters can vote per hour in these sites.
Nationwide, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections, voting stations also have been set up at locations that, as the Moscow mayor’s office puts it, “are easier to reach.”
In Moscow, 139 of the city’s 3,621 polling stations have been placed in hospitals, with doctors and nurses serving as observers, according to the deputy head of the city’s election commission, Dmitry Reut.
In the south of the city, the 600 construction workers building a residence on Novochermushinskaya Ulitsa can simply vote on site. The construction company, Ingrad, organized the vote after workers expressed their interest in such an option on the portal for central government services, said Ingrad Vice-President Eduard Nikolaev.
Outside of Moscow, critics of the election have noted even more unusual polling sites.
In a district of the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, one such station was operating out of the trunk of a car, former city administration boss Kirill Batanov, a member of the opposition party Rosta, posted on Facebook.
In the town of Klintsy, not far from the Belarusian border, the office of anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny, an outspoken opponent of the constitutional-amendments vote, tweeted a photo that showed people voting at a “tree stump right next to a well.”
“So, this is what the amendment about ‘preserving Russian traditions’ is all about,” Navalny’s office joked.
Some 326 kilometers to the southeast, another tree-stump vote took place in the village of Komarovka.
Others opted for sites next to a school’s woodpile, on a soccer court, a public bench, or, in one case, a parked bus, Navalny’s offices tweeted.
Perhaps anticipating potential blowback about these locations, an epidemiologist from the state-run consumer-rights watchdog Roskompotrebnadzor assured reporters on June 26 that voting on the street facilitated social distancing and, thanks to ultraviolet light and air circulation, decreased the risks of infection.
But, with both cars and computers now serving as voting sites, effectively monitoring the vote during the pandemic appears to be proving a challenge.
One journalist and anchor for the independent TV station Dozhd (Rain), Pavel Lobkov, reported being able to both vote in a regular polling station and online. Police appear to be now investigating his votes.
The Russian Public Chamber, a government-linked civil-society organization, had organized the registration of 472,717 observers for the vote, but questions have arisen about their objectivity and competence.
In Moscow, most registered observers represented pro-Kremlin parties or so-called “non-commercial” organizations; only 400 independent observers were registered. Some of the most outspoken critics of Putin’s administration failed to make the cut, the BBC’s Russian Service reported.
Verifying the legitimacy of a vote strung out over several days can only happen if independent observers are on site, objected Vasily Vaisenberg, an election expert from the non-governmental vote-monitoring group Golos (Vote).
But some election officials do not appear concerned. “After the station closes, we lock everything in special safe-packets (sealed, padded envelopes –ed). They are signed each day,” elaborated Tatyana Kushnir, the chairwoman of one election commission in the capital city. “The safe is there, and the police are here with us the whole week.”
In St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest population area, Verena Podolskaya, an election commission member at one polling station, reported that some of the 100-so state employees with absentee-voter IDs who had voted by early afternoon often took selfies or collective selfies.
A similar report came from southwestern Siberia’s Kemerovo Oblast, where state employees complained that election officials at polling station number 108 in the small town of Inskoi had asked that they photograph themselves with the ballot before voting, the voter-rights watchdog Golos stated.
Employees of government-financed institutions earlier had expressed concern to Current Time that they were being pushed to vote, including as absentee voters, and to report to managers when they had.
Some municipal employees appeared to be participating in a get-out-the-vote campaign on Instagram, noted journalist Mikhail Maglov, head of the anti-corruption project Municipal Scanner, a Current Time content partner.
Using the hashtags #всечестно (Everything’s honest) or #голосуемза (We’re voting ‘Yes’), observers at polling stations in Russia’s regions sometimes posted photos on Instagram that shared the same text and occurred at roughly the same times, Maglov reported.
“That is, it’s obvious that this is an organized process, as a rule, at the regional level, which forms part of one structure.”
A member of the election commission at Moscow’s polling station number 305 told Current Time that he had noticed Civic Chamber observers handing out tickets for an election-week lottery promoted by the Moscow mayor’s office.
“It seems to me that’s not exactly the job profile for an observer,” commented Maksim Kochetkov.
The observers on site “are not observers,” charged political analyst Leonid Gozman. “This is a farce.”
In a June 26 comment, the Public Chamber representative overseeing vote-monitoring, Aleksandr Asafov, asserted that a series of social-media allegations about other voting irregularities are fake.
On the first day of voting, President Putin had praised as “rapid and high-quality” the organization of “independent observers” for the election.
Nonetheless, the Russian leader stressed the need for a transparent vote. Results that “spark trust” are “absolutely the main thing,” he said.
This article contains additional reporting from TASS.