Friday, May 4, 2007

Window on Eurasia: How Some Officials Work to Rig Russia's Referenda

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 4 – Russian officials are confident that voters there will approve any measure President Vladimir Putin advocates, but the requirement that at least 50 percent of all voters take part in referenda on the amalgamation of regions for the poll to be valid has led some officials to violate the spirit and even the letter of electoral laws.
That is the disturbing but not unexpected conclusion of Vyacheslav Plakhotniuk, a prominent member of the electoral commission in Irkutsk oblast that supervised the April 2006 vote on the incorporation of the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous District into that region.
Plakhotniuk’s article originally appeared as a chapter in a special limited tirage collective work, “The Referendum of Irkutsk Oblast, 2006, Electoral Statistics,” distributed in Irkutsk in 2006. Last week, it was put online and is available at
According to the electoral commission member, getting a majority for the amalgamation presented no problems, but the law’s requirement that at least 50 percent plus one of voters take part for the poll to be valid “gave rise to problem” involving the proper use of “the ’so-called ‘administrative resource.’”
And “the political will of the organs of power in the course of the referendum campaign was [thus] transformed into corresponding actions,” three kinds of which present problems from the point of view of Russian Federation electoral law, Plakhotniuk wrote.
First, officials and business leaders dependent on them used “direct administrative interference – measures of a command nature” not only to ensure that those subordinate to them voted but also voted in the “correct” way. Some of the more innocent methods, Plakhotniuk said, involved changing work hours so that people could vote.
But other measures were more problematic from a legal perspective, he added, noting that some officials not only worked to increase turnout but also sought to ensure by making promises and threats that those under them would vote “correctly” and that these officials would know how they voted.
Many who took part in the referendum complained about such things, Plakhotniuk said, but he suggested that the actions of his body and those of law enforcement officials prevented “excesses” by officials and managers and thus ensured that overall the vote reflected the will of the people and not that of those in power.
Second, the election official said, various “measures of a stimulative character” were employed by those responsible for getting out the vote. Among these steps were the organization of various “lotteries, surveys, concerts” and so on near polling places, and the offering of special medical and social services to those who voted.
Young people voting for the first time, he said, were subject to special efforts by school and university directors, he noted. Such efforts, at least to the extent that they did not cross into “agitation” for a particular selection, are within the letter of the law – and are “well-known from the times of the Soviet Union.
And third and perhaps the most significant in places like Irkutsk were measures involving “technical” questions like the composition of voter lists. Many of these lists are out of date. Especially in rural or northern regions, they include those who have died or moved away and do not include new arrivals.
Because these lists are unreliable and include many “dead souls,” he continued, there is the risk that even if large percentages of the electorate do take part, the 50 percent barrier will not be reached, something that encourages officials to play games with these lists in order to ensure that their voters have taken part to the necessary extent.
Despite these consequences of the 50 percent participation requirement, Plakhotniuk nonetheless concluded that eliminating it would not reduce the efforts of officials to push their totals up or otherwise affect the outcome of voting. With or without this requirement, he suggested, Russia’s electoral commissions need to remain vigilant.

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