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A multipurpose center

Navalny says Russia’s ballot system has been redesigned to allow massive ‘repeat’ voting. He’s wrong

Source: Meduza
A multipurpose center
A multipurpose center
The Moscow City News Agency
A note to readers: This text is chock-full of footnotes. Be sure to click on all the boxed words like this one.

What Navalny said

“The system is set up perfectly so local crooks can easily organize classic carousels (the better term here is ‘cruise voting’): they load public utilities workers onto buses and drive them to polling stations all day, and each of them votes 20-30 times,” Navalny says in a new investigation posted on his website, arguing that reforms to the country’s voting system make cheating likely in this Sunday’s presidential election.

To demonstrate the new voting system’s supposed flaws, Navalny sent Ilya Pakhomov (one of his staffers) to three different election offices in Moscow, and Pakhomov managed to register to vote at three different polling stations for Sunday’s election. Based on this, Navalny concludes that individuals could have registered to vote at a virtually unlimited number of polling stations for the presidential election.

Let’s fact-check this

On paper, Russia’s new voting system is supposed to work like this: A voter can pre-register to cast their ballot at any one polling station they want. From January 31 to March 12, citizens had the chance to register through an online portal set up by the government. Voters can also apply in person at any “multipurpose center” (MFTs), voting precinct, or regional election board. According to Russia’s Central Election Commission, more than 4 million people signed up to move polling stations for the election on March 18. Unlike past “absentee ballots,” the new certificates specify a voter’s relocated polling station.

Navalny is right that there are no obstacles to filing several applications to vote at different polling stations, though state officials are supposed to remind people that voters can only file one request. The government’s online application system blocked repeated attempts to move polling stations, but there are no such checks performed when applying in person. At first glance, this apparently opens the door to fraud. According to the Central Election Commission’s official bylaws, however, the government has a system in place to prevent repeat voting.

Russian officials say they’ll defend against “carousels” with the “Vybory” (Elections) automated system, which registers every voter’s request to relocate polling stations. The system analyzes the times all applications were received and green lights only the first one. On March 16, two days before Election Day, the system will send three lists to every election board in the country:

  1. Whom to exclude from voters’ lists — because this is voters’ “home” polling station, but they filed an application to cast a ballot elsewhere.
  2. Whom to add to voters’ lists — because this is the first (or only) polling station recorded in voters’ application(s) to cast a ballot away from home.
  3. Who can’t vote here — because this is voters’ second (or third or 90th, but not the first) polling station recorded in their application(s) to vote away from home.

Let’s take another look at Navalny’s video with Ilya Pakhomov, who registered to vote at Moscow polling station number 1764 at 3 p.m., and then registered in the neighboring precinct at polling station number 1763, twenty-five minutes later. According to the Central Election Commission’s bylaws, Pakhomov’s registration at station number 1764 would show up on Vybory’s second (“whom to add”) list, and his station-number-1763 registration would appear on Vybory’s third (“who can’t vote here”) list.

If, on Election Day, Pakhomov went to the polling station indicated on his passport, he’d theoretically find that his name had been added to the Vybory system’s first (“whom to exclude”) list. In this case, he’d be asked to wait, while staff telephoned voting station number 1764 to confirm that he hadn’t already cast a ballot. If he hadn’t already voted, he’d be allowed to vote then and there, and station number 1764 would exclude him from its list of eligible voters.

In conclusion

Navalny’s “experiment” ignores the bylaws set forth by Russia’s Central Election Commission. “We found that anyone can register several times to vote, without even applying through the government’s online system. The Central Election Commission claims that this is impossible, saying all applications are logged in a single database and an MFTs operator can see when a citizen has already taken the opportunity to change their polling station,” Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, told Meduza.

In fact, federal election officials haven’t ruled out that individuals can file multiple requests to move polling stations — the commission has merely said that only the first of these applications is valid. How Russia’s new voting system will work in practice on Sunday is still largely unknown, but at least in theory the system is designed to avoid the kind of repeat voting Navalny says it enables.

P.S. Here’s Navalny’s response to our fact-checking

After publishing the text above, Meduza received a letter from the legal department of Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, explaining the group’s claims about Russia’s new voting system. The letter is reproduced below in its entirety, with some necessary explanatory footnotes added.

Unfortunately, Meduza’s fact-check missed the mark. This isn’t surprising, however, given that Russian election law is intentionally confusing, so it can be interpreted to mean nearly anything. Never fear, though, because we’re here to explain everything.

  1. Russia’s federal law on the presidential elections states that applications to include citizens on voters’ lists at their local polling stations shall be processed according to procedures established by the Central Election Commission.
  2. The Central Election Commission established this procedure in Resolution N 108/900-7, issued on November 1, 2017, which says “the voter can apply only once” (paragraph 2.6). The resolution also says voters should be notified about possible problems, when applying to move polling stations.
  3. Judging by our experiment, we didn’t just identify problems with repeat applications and voters not being informed about this, but we also showed that there’s no mechanism for this when submitting applications. The operators accepting applications lack the capacity to detect violations (unlike the government’s website). The Central Election Commission’s November 2017 resolution says these situations can (or can’t) be identified, as indicated by Paragraph 2.7, but it doesn’t specify any detection mechanisms (or automatic verification) other than the oversight of operators who receive applications. And there are no grounds to think there are any additional mechanisms. Moreover, the application paperwork doesn’t always indicate when the document was issued, making it impossible to rank. And there’s no procedure for notifying voters. All this indicates that there is no further oversight provided. Thus, the Central Election Commission’s only formal check at the application submission stage doesn’t work when submitting applications through multipurpose centers.
  4. In view of this, the voting system is flawed and we believe it was created specially to facilitate voter turnout falsification by local officials. This is especially likely in regions where turnout is traditionally falsified. You don’t really believe, after all, that the actual turnout is 99 percent in Chechnya, 79 percent in Kemerovo, or 76 percent in Bashkiria.

Text by Mikhail Zelensky, translation by Kevin Rothrock

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