Here’s how Russia’s constitutional plebiscite achieved 55 percent turnout before the final day of voting
July 1 marks the final day of voting in Russia’s nationwide plebiscite on constitutional amendments, which includes reforms that could keep Vladimir Putin in the presidency until 2036. After the first six days of early voting, turnout had already exceeded the Kremlin’s reported goal of 55 percent. To achieve this benchmark, teachers and doctors, along with subway and construction workers, and the employees of major enterprises close to the state, were forced to cast their ballots during the early voting period. Meduza shares a roundup of a number of these cases.
The day before the start of voting in Russia’s constitutional plebiscite, June 24, Meduza asked readers who had encountered voter coercion at work to share their stories. Within a week we had received more than 500 messages from all over Russia, the majority of which were from employees at state-funded institutions: teachers, doctors, engineers, museum staff members, and so on. Most of the messages explained that management was demanding that their employees apply for absentee ballots from their local polling stations, and vote in a specific precinct instead — one located close to work or at their institution directly. Managers also asked civil servants to report back on whether or not they had voted, using photos or screenshots (in the case of online voters) as evidence, and pushed them to encourage other people to vote, as well. Meanwhile, employees of private sector companies received mass corporate emails reminding them to vote.
In most cases, upper management was not demanding that employees vote in favor of the constitutional changes specifically — leaders at state-funded institutions who participated in voter mobilization told Meduza that they were sure their employees would vote as needed, without additional instructions.
Moscow’s civil servants pushed to vote online
In Moscow, the most common scheme involved forcing civil servants to vote online.
For example, Maxim Bulachkov, the head of Moscow’s development department (Mosinzhproekt), sent out a memo on June 8 asking employees to “vote through online voting as much as possible” and report back (activists from the “Nyet” movement shared the letter with Meduza). Bulachkov also asked that they “insure that workers from other regions vote in Moscow as much as possible” — apparently referring to workers whose official places of residence are registered outside of the capital. Bulachkov asked employees from other regions to register to vote at the local precinct closest to work. He also asked all employees to cast their ballots during the early voting period: June 25–30.
In a memo dated June 25, Svetlana Yermishkina, the head of Mosinzhproekt’s subsidiary Mosinzhproekt Institute, also asked employees to participate in early voting before 5:00 p.m. that day and report back. Mosinzhproekt and the Mosinzhproekt Institute employ an approximate total of 3,000 people. This department was also responsible for mobilizing its employees to vote during the 2019 Moscow City Duma Elections. Mosinzhproekt didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment.
Meanwhile, opposition politician Alexey Navalny reported that the information technology department of the Moscow Mayor’s Office was monitoring voter registration among the capital’s civil servants. Similarly, the BBC Russian Service reported that this department was checking the number of employees in Moscow’s municipal enterprises against the number of people registered to vote online. The information technology department denied these reports. At the same time, RBC reported that employees working in the Moscow Mayor’s Office itself were no exception to forced registration.
The Moscow subway also “organized” voting among its employees, a Meduza reader who identified themselves as a metro worker told us on June 25. The subway worker claimed that on the first day of early voting, employees at his branch were sent home early and told to go vote in the constitutional plebiscite. Management didn’t specify if they should vote for or against. The BBC Russian Service also reported potential voter coercion among Moscow’s subway workers.
Doctors fighting the coronavirus pandemic were also required to cast their ballots — according to screenshots published by opposition politician Andrey Pivovarov, even the doctors at Moscow’s main coronavirus hospital, Kommunarka, were mobilized to vote. The hospital’s press service didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment. According to Vadim Kovalev, the deputy head of Moscow’s public watchdog group monitoring the vote, the screenshots in question were real. But he claimed they are evidence of “an employee’s private initiative.”
Collecting calendars and mobilizing parents
In the satellite town of Novocheboksarsk, located just outside of Cheboksary, the capital of Russia’s Chuvash Republic, school teachers and kindergarten teachers have been mobilizing children’s parents to vote, in an attempt to increase turnout. A local teacher told Meduza that these instructions were handed down to school principals and the heads of kindergartens from the city administration, who directed them to collect data on the total number of parents whose children attend their institutions, and provide daily reports on the number of parents who had voted. Teachers were also expected to go door to door and campaign for people to take part in the plebiscite. According to Meduza’s source, this was coordinated by the city administration’s deputy head for social issues, Olga Matina. She didn’t respond to our written requests for comments, or our phone calls.
A Novocheboksarsk resident told Meduza that her children’s teachers “ask who voted everyday” — sending messages in group chats for parents to encourage early voting and applying for absentee ballots. Navalny’s office in Cheboksary also leaked a training manual for teachers on how to encourage their students’ parents to vote, by pushing the idea that “children have been declared the main priority of state policy.”
At the Russian Pension Fund’s department in the Tomsk region, the leadership asked employees to apply for absentee ballots and vote at polling stations near their office during business hours on June 25 and June 26, the voter protection movement “Golos” reported. In response to Meduza’s inquiries, the Tomsk branch of the Pension Fund stated that this information wasn’t true, but added that it’s not illegal for institutions to organize voting near a workplace “taking into account the wish of the team [and] for the convenience of citizens.”
Meanwhile, residents of Russia’s southern cities of Samara and Kurgan told Meduza about a classic scheme for monitoring voting, where company managers require employees to bring calendars from polling stations to their human resources departments. None of the enterprises involved responded to Meduza’s written requests for comments or calls.
In Kazan, the general director of the company Kazanorgsintez, Aydar Akhmetshin, ordered department heads to gather information about voting among employees and report it to human resources. As Russia’s largest producer of polyethylene (the most common plastic in use today), Kazanorgsintez employs more than 8,500 people. Politician Andrey Pivovarov published the memo with these instructions online. As it turns out, on July 2, Kazanorgsintez managers are also expected to report on the employees who didn’t vote — including offering explanatory statements “indicating the reasons for their failure to appear for voting.”
Kazanorgsintez’s press service acknowledged the authenticity of the order, but called it a “mistake.” The company’s press service told Meduza that memo was meant to “inform the labor collective about the rights conferred on every citizen to vote in the nationwide vote.” However, according to the company’s spokesperson, this order was withdrawn a day later and wasn’t distributed to all divisions.
Election officials say there are no serious violations — but voter protection groups say otherwise
On the morning of July 1 — the final day of voting in the constitutional plebiscite — the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, stated that no serious violations were revealed during voting. “I have checked and so far we have no serious violations that would require a meeting of the Central Election Commission’s working group and the [commission] itself, not yet. We are going [ahead] with a minimal number of reports about some specific violations, we are monitoring this strictly,” Pamfilova said.
On the other hand, the voter protection movement “Golos” issued a preliminary report on the progress of early voting, which highlighted incidents of voter coercion as one of the plebiscite’s key issues. According to Golos, complaints about forced voting make it difficult to maintain that the vote accurately reflects how Russia’s citizens feel about the amendments to the constitution. Golos also drew attention to the fact that several enterprises and companies publicly spoke about their employees voting en masse, which speaks to “a shift in the perception of normal voting procedures” and “a lack of understanding about how democratic, free expression should be exercised.”
Golos considers the high turnout for early voting abnormal. For example, in St. Petersburg, the turnout was 60.1 percent as of the morning of July 1 — two times higher than the turnout for the 2019 gubernatorial elections (30.07 percent).
Golos also notes that the official results on the number of voters “show a significant and inexplicable difference between regions.” For example, Russia’s Tuva Republic allegedly saw 73.2 percent of voters cast their ballots in the first five days. At the same time, the neighboring Irkutsk region had three times less turnout — just 22.4 percent; Tuva’s other neighbor, the Altai Republic, saw 32.95 percent turnout. “Such differences can only be explained by the coercion of citizens in a specific territory or by direct falsification,” Golos concludes.
Summary by Eilish Hart