‘Nothing is forbidden’ How the Kremlin convinced Russia’s citizens to support a new constitution and ‘zero’ Putin’s presidential terms
Russia’s week-long plebiscite on constitutional amendments ended on July 1, with its results paving the way for Vladimir Putin to remain in the presidency until 2036. In the hours immediately after the polls closed, it became apparent that the Kremlin was very pleased with the figures the Central Election Commission presented (those who voted “against” or boycotted the plebiscite remained absolutely unconvinced). Meduza special correspondents Andrey Pertsev and Farida Rustamova recount the events of the past seven days and explain what the Kremlin had to do to make Russian citizens support the new constitution and “zero” Putin’s presidential terms.
This translation has been edited and abridged for length and clarity.
The strangest plebiscite in Russia’s recent history
The recent vote on amendments to Russia’s constitution, including reforms that “zero” Putin’s presidential terms, saw the strangest voting procedure in the country’s recent history. Rather than being regulated by federal voting laws, it took place under a special law “On amendments to the constitution,” which was adopted in March 2020. According to this new legislation, the voting procedure was completely left up to Russia’s Central Election Commission.
The Central Election Commission decided that voting would take place over the course of seven days, from June 25 to July 1. It also simplified voting procedures, including allowing voters to cast their ballots outside of polling stations, for example at-home, at open-air sites, or at their workplaces. The final day of voting, July 1, was also declared a holiday, while early voting from June 25–30 was dubbed “the voting before the day of the vote.”
The coronavirus pandemic was the official reason for this unprecedented extended voting period. When Putin first initiated the nationwide vote on constitutional amendments, the plebiscite was scheduled for April 22, 2020. But during a nationwide address on March 25, Putin announced that the vote would be postponed until a later date; Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin — who were expecting the pandemic to peak around the end of April — had convinced him to reschedule.
That said, Putin didn’t bother waiting for the pandemic to end. On June 1, he issued an order scheduling the nationwide vote for July 1. That same day, Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova said that voting would be even safer “than going to the store.” She also explained that the weeklong voting period was an effort to make the vote “contactless”; to facilitate the “maximum distribution of potential voters, both in time and in space, in order to minimize physical contact.”
No vote in Russia has ever taken place according to (as Pamfilova put it) “the principle of contactless-ness.” On the contrary, the Kremlin has welcomed mass participation and high turnouts. This was the original plan for the constitutional plebiscite as well, but it turns out that mass participation doesn’t go well with the coronavirus.
“Organizing an acceptable turnout during the pandemic seemed like a very difficult task,” a source close to the Putin administration told Meduza, explaining that a number of Putin’s aides even recommended cancelling the vote. “But for Putin the vote was already a matter of principle,” the source said. At the beginning of June, the Kremlin was determined to get a “plausible” 55 percent turnout, despite the fact that prior to the epidemic, only 60–70 percent of the electorate planned on taking part in the vote (at the time of publication, the Central Election Commission’s preliminary data said turnout was around 65 percent).
Photos of election commission members working from park benches and playgrounds, as well as setting up ballot boxes in the trunks of cars, were quick to appear on social networks, where they were met with criticism and ridicule. Initially, Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova denied that this was even happening: “There is no voting on benches or from car trunks and there will not be [any],” she said.
However, the Central Election Commission soon changed its position. “Open-air voting is a well-known practice in many states. But here, for some reason, it became a pretext for intentionally discrediting the voting procedure,” Central Election Commission member Mayya Grishina said, indignantly.
The Kremlin was able to use the extended vote to its own advantage, in terms of both time and place. Several sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that voters directly dependent on the government (for example, civil servants, employees at state enterprises, workers at major corporations, and so on) were expected to cast their ballots en masse on the first day of voting. This was required so that election officials could analyze the turnout, and to give local officials and company managers the opportunity to influence citizens who hadn’t shown up to vote.
Corporate mobilization became one of the Kremlin’s main pillars and hopes in the plebiscite. The Putin administration first started using this strategy after Sergey Kirienko, the former head of Rosatom, became the head of the administration’s political block. Enterprises belonging to this state corporation began mobilizing their employees during elections. During Russia’s 2018 presidential elections, this technique was extended across the country — managers at major companies, as well as regional authorities, were assigned political strategists to help mobilize both private and public sector employees to vote.
This same model of corporate mobilization was used during this week’s constitutional plebiscite, and new voting procedures offered significant opportunities: accommodations for absentee voting meant workers didn’t have to go anywhere, which mitigated the risk of election observers discovering incidents of mass voting — ballot boxes were brought to major companies directly. In Moscow, online voting was widely used as a means for corporate mobilization.
In addition, a Meduza investigation revealed that in a number of regions voting among civil servants and employees at major enterprises was monitored with the help of a third-party electronic system called “Votely.” However, a source close to the administration of a large region in Russia’s Central Federal District told Meduza that in the end, the system didn’t work very well.
“The multi-day vote has led to a significant reduction in protections of citizens’ rights to free expression,” said Stanislav Andreychuk, a member of the “Golos” voter protection movement’s advisory council. “First of all, it [was] very poorly monitored. Furthermore, six months ago [Central Election Commission] chairman [Ella] Pamfilova publicly stated that at-home and early voting create mass opportunities for coercion and falsification, and now the [Central Election Commission] itself has opened the door for this.”
According to Andreychuk, voting at major enterprises is the most worrying thing of all: “It gives employers every opportunity to control employees’ participation in the vote. People from various sectors of the economy have faced this kind of pressure.”
On the morning of July 1, Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova stated that the commission hadn’t found any significant violations during the voting period. But several resonant stories appeared throughout the week, regardless of these claims.
Moscow resident Marta Minasyan posted a video of an incident involving her family — on June 29, two couples went to cast their vote at polling station number 1403 in the Lefortovo district, only to discover that according to the voter lists, they and their children had already voted. Election officials even had everyone’s passport numbers on file, along with signatures confirming that their ballots had been received. Polling station workers apologized, and the deputy head of Moscow’s Election Commission, Dmitry Reut, later called what happened a “mistake.” As a result, five absentee ballots were invalidated at that polling station.
There are many similar stories. When Ufa resident Yuri Belov and his girlfriend went to vote, they also discovered that someone else had already done so for them. The same thing happened to St. Petersburg resident Anastasia Velikanova. In the town of Iskitim, Novosibirsk region, a resident cast his own vote and then voted on behalf of four of his relatives, while another man in Samara voted for his wife and daughter.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s Ramenki district saw significant irregularities involving at-home voting. In a Facebook post, a member of the territorial election commission, Kirill Trofimov, said that 400 to 500 people (almost one in four local voters) had cast absentee ballots by the evening of June 26, the end of the second day of voting. Trofimov told OpenMedia that only 10 of the 400 people who supposedly voted from home had actually signed for their ballots (in voter records, the rest were “marked off in pencil”). Trofimov also noted that polling station number 2771 recorded 393 home voters, despite the fact that the territorial election commission issued only 34 home ballots (that’s almost ten times less than what election officials reported).
In response, the deputy head of Moscow’s Election Commission, Dmitry Reut, said that he didn’t see any malicious intent in what had happened: “I think this mistake is from fatigue.” Moscow’s Election Commission later invalidated 228 ballots from the Ramenki district’s polling station number 2771, as well as 203 ballots from the district’s polling station number 2773.
Online voting in the Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod regions was also accompanied by a series of scandals. Meduza alone received dozens of reports about civil servants in both regions being forced to register for online voting.
Electoral statistician Sergey Shpilkin calculated that every seventh voter in Moscow — approximately 1.09 million people — had registered to vote online, with an average of 300 online voters per precinct. In Moscow’s Troitsky Administrative Okrug, 39 percent of local voters applied for online voting — that’s 36,895 people. At the same time, four of the district’s precincts saw the number of people registered for online voting exceed the maximum normative number of local voters by 3,000 people. In his professional opinion, Shpilkin felt that voting in the Troitsky Administrative Okrug should have been cancelled (no ballots were invalidated in these constituencies).
During the first day of online voting, journalist Pavel Lobkov — a correspondent for the independent television station Dozhd — put the system to the test and managed to vote twice: first at a polling station and then via the government portal mos.ru (Lobkov’s paper ballot was later invalidated). Russian citizens living abroad also managed to vote multiple times. Israeli resident Yale Ilinsky even managed to cast three ballots — one online, one at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, and another at the consulate in Haifa. On June 28, Golos reported that a Muscovite living in London had sent them photographic evidence that he had voted both online and at an embassy.
The authorities also organized a wide variety of prize draws, contests, and other events to encourage voter participation. The Moscow government alone spent 10 billion rubles (nearly $142 million) on its “Million prizes” program, which effectively offered people a financial incentive to go out and vote in the plebiscite, at the expense of the city budget.
Other regions went even further. In Omsk, a member of a local election commission won an apartment in a prize draw for local voters. In the Krasnoyarsk territory, the Irkutsk region, and other parts of Russia, voters also won apartments, as well as cars, and smartphones; in the Sverdlovsk region, they received letters of appreciation for voting; in Bryansk, they were given kitchen appliances. The BBC Russian Service also discovered that in Lytkarino, a town outside of Moscow, voters at a polling station located in a local college were simply paid cash, under the guise of some kind of benefit payment “for children of war.”
Originally, the Central Election Commission planned to count the ballots several days after the end of the vote and publish the results within three days. However, on the last day of voting, July 1, the Central Election Commission began announcing preliminary results for each of the regions immediately — even before voting had ended across the country. Ella Pamfilova explained the change in procedure due to the fact that “nothing is forbidden,” and an alleged desire to provide official data as soon as possible.
Exceeding the Kremlin’s expectations
By July 2, Ella Pamfilova had already released the preliminary results of the vote: turnout was 65 percent, with 74.12 percent of voters supporting the amendments, and 24.94 percent voting against.
As such, it appears that the new ways of casting ballots and the extended voting period actually allowed the Kremlin to increase turnout above and beyond the planned 55 percent — that said, the state pollster VTsIOM was already predicting a 52.6 percent turnout by June 26.
Meduza obtained information about the Putin administration’s planned benchmarks for turnout in Russia’s regions. For example, in the Kemerovo region, they anticipated 70 percent turnout, but 84.4 percent of registered voters had already cast their ballots by 3:00 p.m. local time on the last day of voting. In the Nizhny Novgorod region, the Kremlin wanted to see 61 percent of registered voters go to the polls, but as of 3:00 p.m., 67 percent of them had already voted. On the other hand, a number of regions failed to meet their anticipated targets: the Irkutsk region, for example, had a planned turnout of 55 percent, but had only reached 42.3 percent as of 6:00 p.m. on July 1.
A source close to a regional administration in the Central Federal District told Meduza that his territory also faced difficulties with voter turnout: “And they mobilized and sent ballot boxes around to [apartment complexes] and houses several times.” In the end, the local authorities managed to shorten the voter lists by several percentage points, “thereby raising the overall turnout.” Meanwhile, another source close to the leadership of a major corporation told Meduza that this particular company received additional motivation in the form of a letter from the Putin administration, which emphasized that the president had requested the required benchmarks.
Our source close to the Kremlin is pleased with the election results: according to him, Putin’s initial goal was to get more than 33 million votes in support of the amendments — the exact number of Russian citizens who voted for the 1993 constitution. ‘Then the bar was raised to 50 million votes (just less than half of Russia’s voters) — the president personally latched onto this story, appealed to people, talked about the necessity of the amendments [and] began to take everything personally,” he says. And by the time that this particular conversation took place, our source was convinced that the necessary numbers would be achieved.
Translated and edited by Eilish Hart