Volunteers sifted through tens of thousands of hours of footage to spot election fraud near Moscow. Here’s what they found.
In the months since Russia’s nationwide gubernatorial elections on September 9, 2018, Moscow Oblast has emerged as one of the regions with the most widespread record of election fraud. As early as December, news emerged of massive “carousels,” or systems by which voters circulate among precincts and vote multiple times in each, in the city of Balashikha on Moscow’s outskirts. Carousels require the cooperation of election officials, and the violations in Balashikha led to multiple investigations and resignations. To find the “carousel riders,” election observers used recordings from surveillance cameras posted in voting sites. Here, Meduza reports on what might be an even more notable instance of mass corruption near Moscow on Election Day. Observers in the city of Roshal told Meduza that official turnout figures there far exceeded the turnout they observed on camera not just in one but in all eight of the city’s precincts.
Volunteers watched footage of voting sites for thousands upon thousands of hours
News of the mass violations in Balashikha, the largest city on Moscow’s outskirts, emerged thanks to volunteers who both installed video surveillance equipment in voting sites and put an incredible number of hours into sifting through the resulting recordings in search of election fraud. That research allowed the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta to reveal the scale of the city’s election-related corruption.
Viktor Kabanov, a coordinator for Moscow Oblast’s alliance of volunteer election observers, told Meduza that Russia’s Central Election Commission streamed live footage from approximately 3,000 of the 4,253 voting sites in the Moscow area. Volunteers managed to record almost all of those livestreams: they captured 16 hours of footage from two cameras installed in each of those thousands of precincts. Kabanov said volunteers were able to watch only a tenth of the footage they captured over the course of half a year.
Independent election observers released an analogous fraud prevention project called UIKDOCFEST after Russia’s 2018 presidential elections. Anyone can join the effort to sort through that footage here or at the Count Them Yourself project.
And the winner is… Roshal!
The elections in Roshal provided a rare case in which video recordings were available in all of the city’s voting sites, Kabanov noted. The city has one such site in each of its eight precincts, and more than 16,000 voters are registered there in total. Along with regional observation coordinator Ivan Zhuravlev, Kabanov watched all of the city’s footage to calculate its actual voter turnout and watch for corruption violations.
How to get turnout figures from surveillance footage
Approximately 16 hours of footage are recorded at each voting site beginning at 7:30 AM on Election Day. At 8:00 AM, voters begin lining up to fill out ballots and place them in transparent, centralized ballot boxes.
The cameras are set up to provide a clear view of the ballot boxes at all times. This allows volunteers to count the number of actual voters with great accuracy.
Those figures can later be compared with data from the Russian government’s automated election information system, which electoral precincts use in their official post-election reports as well.
Kabanov and Zhuravlev’s calculations indicated that approximately 3,450 voters visited voting sites in Roshal on September 9, 2018, to cast their votes. That is three times less than the official figure of 10,246. Meduza independently verified turnout at one Roshal precinct using video footage. At Middle School 2, the voting site for precinct 2678, 286 people cast their ballots on September 9 (Kabanov and Zhuravlev counted 288). The local election commission’s report, however, claims a turnout of 1,083 — almost four times the actual figure.
Even when Meduza took into account official data on absentee votes, whose actual quantity cannot be verified by video, the total turnout in Roshal was only 22.5 percent, much less than the 38.6 percent turnout recorded in Moscow Oblast as a whole. However, Roshal’s municipal election commission reported that turnout in the city reached 63.6 percent. That figure contradicts video-based counts that show actual turnout was not even close to the city’s official numbers in every single precinct. In every case, official results were several times larger than unofficial counts from independent observers.
In two precincts (2677 and 2678), video recordings clearly display intentional ballot dumps. While some election officials removed ballots from ballot boxes and placed them on a table, a packet of already completed ballots was added to the pile. Observers could not determine how artificially high turnout figures were achieved in other cases.
Andrei Vorobyov, who won the gubernatorial elections in Moscow Oblast, officially received 78.7 percent of the vote in Roshal. He received a greater percentage only in one of Balashikha’s neighborhoods (78.8 percent) as well as the municipalities of Reutov (81.2 percent), Lytkarino (81.6 percent), Losino-Petrovsky (85.3 percent), and Elektrogorsk (89.1 percent). In the oblast as a whole, Vorobyov’s official vote count was 62.5 percent.
When Meduza turned to the Election Commission of Moscow Oblast for comment, its recently installed chair, Ilya Berezkin, responded, “There have not yet been any official complaints about voting rights violations in the city of Roshal. There have also been no announcements of video recordings submitted from voting sites. In Moscow Oblast, the elections are officially complete. The Commission is investigating all the information it receives, and should doubts arise with regards to any of that information, the corresponding materials will be sent to local law enforcement agencies. The city of Roshal will be no exception.”
Putin himself has promised to deal with electoral corruption in Balashikha
Novaya Gazeta estimated that more than 300 “carousel riders” voted in 48 precincts in Balashikha. Soon after the newspaper’s report was published in December, Russia’s federal Human Rights Council raised the question of using video recordings to identify electoral violations during one of its meetings in the Kremlin.
On February 13, without waiting for input from Russia’s Investigative Committee, Ilya Berezkin of Moscow Oblast’s Election Commission announced that one member of the commission had been fired. Both leaders of Balashikha’s territorial commission also resigned. Berezkin added that administrative employees who had put pressure on election officials in individual precincts had also been fired, though he did not reveal their names. The news agency Zakon later clarified that two members of the Moscow Oblast commission had resigned independently, but neither of them supervised the election in Balashikha.
Translation by Hilah Kohen