‘There’s nothing the Kremlin hasn’t tried’ How Russian election officials plan to secure 55-percent turnout in the upcoming constitutional plebiscite
Having rescheduled Russia’s plebiscite on constitutional amendments for July 1, the Putin administration reportedly hopes at least 55 percent of eligible voters will participate in the special election. To increase turnout, they’ve introduced a raft of new rules, including staggering voting over a seven-day period, allowing voting from home, and introducing online voting for residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The pretense for all of these measures is public safety in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but these new regulations could also serve to increase official turnout figures and boost support for the amendments.
Several sources close to the Putin administration, as well as political strategists working for Kremlin-supported candidates in the regional elections scheduled for September 2020, told Meduza that Kremlin officials have set a goal of 55-percent participation in the nationwide vote, with the aim of 60 percent voting in favor of the constitutional amendments.
That said, there is no mandatory approval threshold for adopting these changes; the amendments are already considered approved and will come into force if supported by the majority of voters. Meanwhile, polls from the independent Levada Center show that 45 percent of respondents are definitely planning to take part in the plebiscite, while 21 percent are open to participating, and 13 percent are sure they won’t vote.
Local authorities reportedly began receiving voting targets from the Kremlin in April (the original date for the plebiscite was April 22). Some regions received turnout targets as high as 70 percent, with the aim of 90 percent voting in favor. That said, sources from the administrations of several regions, as well as local branches of the ruling party United Russia, maintain that turnout and approval goals have since been lowered to 65 percent and 55 percent, respectively. “The turnout should be plausible,” a source close to the presidential administration told Meduza.
That said, some regions are still doubtful that they will be able to rally this many voters. A senior United Russia representative from one of the regions in the Central Federal District told Meduza that these “plausible targets” can’t be met using traditional voting procedures: in his region, only around 20 percent of voters are prepared to participate in the plebiscite. “People are afraid of the coronavirus and the topic of the amendments has already passed. It’s become boring and they’re used to it,” he said, describing popular sentiment. Nevertheless, the United Russia member maintained that the new rules and procedures for voting introduced in connection with the coronavirus epidemic will help raise turnout and the level of popular approval.
Voting on amending the constitution will now be spread out over a seven day period from June 25 to July 1 — six of these days will be set aside for at-home voting. Voters will not have to offer a valid reason for applying to vote from home. Furthermore, members of the election commission will not handle voters’ passports or register their passport numbers, in accordance with the new voting procedures. Every hour, polling stations will close for ten minutes for sanitization. And according to the Central Election Commission, polling stations should limit entry to 8–12 voters per hour.
During Russia’s last unified voting day, the widespread use of at-home voting allowed the Kremlin to increase turnout and give good results to candidates supported by the authorities, some analysts concluded. Meduza’s source from United Russia said that the new rules for the vote on the amendments will definitely be able to raise turnout by 20–25 percent. “But there’s no way to get 55 percent without explicit additions. The loyal turnout base has always been elderly people, and many of them are at [their] dachas [summer cottages] now. At-home voting here won’t help,” the source warns.
A political strategist working for the authorities in one of the regions says that the 55 percent target will not apply in parts of central Russia with traditionally low voter turnout or in regions with tendencies towards protests. Instead, these numbers will come “at the expense of other regions.” Sources close to the Kremlin say the votes needed to reach targets will be collected through electronic voting in Moscow and St. Petersburg, regions that already account for a significant portion of the total share of voters. The authorities in the Russian Caucasus traditionally provide a significant share of the overall voting results, as well.
Political strategist Ruslan Modin believes that achieving 55-percent turnout is possible, since new forms of voting could attract the attention of more voters. Not to mention the fact that the vote is taking place on the heels of Russia’s rescheduled 75th anniversary Victory Day celebrations: “The voting will begin immediately after the parade — they will announce the lifting of restrictions and people will be happy,” he predicts.
According to political consultant Dmitry Fetisov, “many regional heads who need to show results” will see this as an opportunity to falsify votes. “Even if the president sets the difficult task of ensuring legitimacy, they will not give up this opportunity. And this could provide up to 10–15 percent of the turnout and votes for the necessary results,” he warns. The way he sees it, allowing voters to cast their ballots without providing passport data creates the “temptation” to use carousel voting — a method of voter fraud where individuals vote several times at different polling stations.
The Kremlin’s political strategists are also reportedly planning a new series of advertisements (to be filmed at polling stations over the weekend of June 27 to July 1) with the aim of persuading Russians that the plebiscite enjoyed high turnout. Maintaining social distancing, as well as other recommendations from Russia’s public health agency, may also cause lines at the entrances to the polling stations, and this is seen as a good thing. “A line is a beautiful picture. It’s proof of high turnout,” says one political strategist who helped organize the Kremlin’s secessionist referendum in Crimea, before Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine. In that vote, election officials also closed some polling stations for the deliberate purpose of photo-opportunity long lines.
Sources close to the Putin administration say that a new “brand book” — developed by a Kremlin-affiliated political strategy company called “IMA Consulting” — will also guide campaigning for the constitutional amendments. “It should be presented during the presidential administration’s video conference on politics with the governors and vice governors today. The existing campaign is already outdated. There will be new videos and billboards, new ideology,” he said.
The propaganda videos that have already appeared on the state-run television network Russia Today, as well as the news agency RIA FAN (an outlet affiliated with businessman Evgeny Prigozhin), are not formally part of the Kremlin’s official campaign.
That said, political strategists who are meant to be supervising campaigning at the local level have yet to receive new guidelines. “We don’t have any freedom at all, we can only do what is said at the top,” a political strategist working in one of Russia’s single-industry towns said. “There’s nothing the Kremlin hasn’t tried to float in these last two months. [First] it’s one handbook, then another, and then they call back almost immediately to say it’s cancelled — don’t do it.”
Summary by Eilish Hart