No Need to Break the Law

As we have frequently reported, the December 2nd State Duma electoral campaign in Russia has been marked by misconduct and fraud. The United Russia party in particular has used any means necessary to win votes, from offering cash and groceries to pensioners, to campaigning before the allowed date, to threatening and pressuring students and state-employees.

Yet however shocking and unethical their tactics have been, many of them were not against the law. Under the Putin administration, electoral laws have been relaxed to the point where the party of power can act with impunity to reach its aims. An excellent Novaya Gazeta article (complete translation below), chronicles activities that were once illegal (but now are commonplace), and sheds light on the minimal punishments proscribed for improper conduct.

Changes made by Putin have also served to keep opposition groups out of the Parliament. The Kremlin has formed a 7% threshold that a single party must meet to have seats, and has forbidden smaller parties from forming coalitions to pool votes. Running as an independent is now impossible, as seats for directly-elected individuals have been removed. Voters can now only vote for a political party, although only 5% of Russians have any trust in the institution (According to 2005 Data from the Levada Center), and few Russians belong to any party. Finally, the minimum voter turnout has been abolished, which means that voters representing a small minority of Russia can elect the whole Parliament.

When the lack of a critical, free press is added into the equation, the outlook becomes even more grim.

Political analysts have already said that this Sunday’s elections will be the least democratic that Russia has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Then, as now, one party will win using technically “legal” means.

November 29, 2007


Fraud with impunity has been programmed into electoral legislation. A critical overview of Russia’s electoral legislation.

Author: Leonid Kirichenko, electoral law expert

Electoral laws have been prudently amended to include standards that will guarantee victory for the Kremlin’s party – not only in the current election, but in all subsequent elections.

For example, the law no longer regards ballot-stuffing as an infringement. Even if the number of ballot-papers at a polling station turns out to be ten times greater than the number of voters on the rolls, there would be no legal grounds to invalidate that polling-station’s results.

When a voter uses an absentee certificate to vote at a different polling-station, electoral officials are supposed to keep the certificate so that it can’t be used again. But the current legislation doesn’t include any penalties for allowing absentee voters to retain their certificates, or regard this as an infringement; so the same certificates can be used over and over.

There are no legal penalties for printing additional false absentee certificates or using them to vote multiple times. Yet each fake absentee certificate is exchanged for a valid ballot-paper. Since polling-stations remain open for 12 hours, a busload of “repeat voters” with a plentiful supply of fake absentee certificates can visit numerous polling stations, voting at each one. This form of multiple voting might pass unnoticed by election observers and honest electoral officials.

The law states that no matter what kind of falsifications are revealed, a court is not obliged to invalidate vote-count results or election results. The law only says that a court “may invalidate” results. It doesn’t have to do so. A decision either way would be equally lawful. And naturally, when it comes to a choice between two lawful decisions, the more politically expedient decision will be chosen.

After observers leave a polling-station (with their copies of vote-counting results), election officials are allowed to write up some new results, corrected and improved, on the pretext of having found an error. And the law will regard the second set of results as valid. The law does not require any evidence that the second set is correct. According to the law, election officials and the courts will decide whether sealed bundles of ballot-papers should be opened and re-counted. The law permits them to ignore any protests from observers who present their copies of “incorrect” vote-counting results.

All of the above indicates how the authorities can arrange to get the election outcomes they want, while remaining within the law. Even more can be done by stepping outside the law – with impunity. And that impunity is guaranteed by a special legal provision which effectively makes election officials immune from prosecution.

This remarkable provision occurs in Article 29 of the law on voting rights: electoral commission members may not be subjected to criminal prosecution for falsification or any other crime. They can’t even be fined without the consent of the Prosecutor General or a regional prosecutor. And if election results are falsified in the politically appropriate direction, those prosecutors obviously wouldn’t give their consent.

Translated by Elena Leonova