Gregory Melkonyants: Three Barriers for the Election Observer

Gregory Melkonyants is co-chairman of Golos, an independent election watchdog. In an interview with ReForum, Melkonyants talks about the biggest risks of new election law, increasing restrictions on election legislation, and what Russia needs in order to hold fair elections.

ReForum: What risks come with the new election law that the State Duma plans to pass in its third reading on July 21?

Melkonyants: The law contains three new risks.

The first concerns three-day voting. During the constitutional referendum, we saw how multi-day voting can take place in a number of formats: voting at polling stations, home-to-home voting, outdoor polling stations, and voting at business locations. We have good reason to believe that mass falsification was made possible thanks to this new way of holding multi-day early voting. Not all members of the precinct election commission can work during this early voting period. Two or three members of the commission are enough to organize early voting. The main voting day is just window dressing when all members of the commission come together and are shown ballots supposedly cast during the early voting period.

Early voting has always been something of an exception and used quite rarely. According to the law on the basic guarantees of citizens’ voting rights, if the number of early voters at a polling station exceeds 1% of all voters, then it’s considered a deviation from the norm, as well as a reason for the election commission to count it separately.

Besides that, voters must still prove that they a valid reason to vote early. This kind of voting always takes place on the premises of the election commission and almost always in the presence of election observers. Even then, the early voting procedure has always faced serious criticism. During multi-day voting, it’s easier to force people to go out to vote, as well as to control the turnout and the overall voting process. Russia’s Central Election Commission has criticized this practice a number of times. Now it’s trying to sell it but under a different name. They’re combining discredited early voting with the multi-day voting process from the constitutional referendum in order to create a new three-day vote in the upcoming elections.  

The problem with multi-day voting is that not all members of the precinct election commission can take part in its organization. Even if a member of the commission wants to participate, he needs to be assigned a duty, which may be denied to him. Another problem is that people may be busy with their jobs on the days that early voting takes place. Friday will inevitably fall on one of the voting days during a three-day period, so election observers and commission members with no connection to the government won’t always be able to get off work, whereas state workers will have that opportunity.

The constitutional referendum showed us how state workers are usually the ones in charge of running and organizing early voting. Other members of the election commission started working only on the final day of voting, at which point they were show ballots that had already been collected.

The second problem of multi-day voting is the absence of normal election observing. Not only that, but we also have about 96 thousand polling stations operating simultaneously, which requires a massive number of election observers. Likewise, at every polling station the members of the election commission can split up so as to provide several types of voting, all of which require further control. Voting at the polling station may take place while groups of commission members go from home to home collecting votes. Or an ad-hoc polling station may be set up in the courtyard of an apartment block. It’s practically impossible to have enough observers in all of these locations.

The next problem is that ballots are kept overnight without much security. That clearly creates risks of fake signatures on voter lists and ballot stuffing. 

The second risk of the new election law is encroachments being made on the guarantees of election commission members. Proposals are being made so that political parties can remove their own commission members at any moment. This is a serious blow to election oversight since commission members who actively do their job – defending the law, reporting violations, demanding identification – are currently protected from being removed from the commission without a court order. Election-rigging commissions have run into trouble when they haven’t been able to do anything with this kind of commission members. They’ve been forced to use threats, sabotage, and violence against these members in the absence of other options. If parties are given the right to remove their own commission members as they please, then I think they’ll create lists of pesky and undesirable individuals who interfere with falsification. In this way, the authorities will try to put pressure on political parties so that they remove these kinds of members from election commissions.

All of that may lead to a sudden withdrawal of decent and honest people from election commissions, all of whom are needed for overseeing the voting process.

The third risk of the new law is the exclusion of citizens residing in one region from becoming election observers in another. This means that an observer residing in the greater Moscow area cannot be an observer in the city of Moscow. That’s surprising because, according to election laws, even candidates can be a resident of another region. This is a serious blow to election observing since political parties often bring their own activists and members from other regions to ensure fair regional elections. Observers from Golos travel to various regions, which has so far been very effective. These new norms have essentially set up artificial borders within the country for election observers. It’s clear that authorities are afraid of independent observers.

Election observers are already in a disadvantaged position. Several years ago, lawmakers adopted an amendment according to which candidates and parties must notify the election commission no less than three days prior to voting about what observers they are sending and to where. The government knows in advance which polling stations will be monitored by these election observers, and which areas will not.

Overall, the new amendments suggest that authorities are planning for more falsification and are coming up with new ways of concealing it. Unfortunately, nothing can be done yet to oppose the adoption of these anti-democratic laws.

We’ve seen with the adoption of this new legislation that even if three of the four parliamentary parties declare that they are against it and that the draft law was adopted with gross violations, there still aren’t enough votes to change anything. United Russia has a constitutional majority in the State Duma, which gives it the ability to pass any law without the support of the other parties.

ReForum: To speed up the process, the government amended an eight-year-old draft bill, which is in violation of the state Duma’s bylaws.

Melkonyants: Right. In order to speed up the process, United Russia came up with a strange new formula where they pulled out an old bill and added completely new articles that were not originally envisaged in its conception. That’s a violation of parliamentary norms. You can’t make new changes to a bill after the first reading. Here we see that the idea behind Dmitry Medvedev’s 2012 draft law has been seriously changed. Representatives of the three factions in the state Duma talked a lot about this, but the bill was nevertheless adopted in its second reading. Of course, these kinds of changes lose their legitimacy right away. It suggests that the authorities have no other legal means to pass the law. Mass discontent delayed the adoption of the law in its third and final reading by only a week – it was assumed that it would be adopted in one day.

ReForum: What’sthereasonfor adopting the law so hastily?

Melkonyants: I don’t exclude the possibility that it’s happening in preparation for snap elections in the State Duma. There are a number of potential scenarios. The issue of the State Duma elections probably hasn’t been resolved quite yet. But in order to have more room for maneuver, they want to get the law passed ahead of time. Relevant legislation should be in place and working when the elections begin. By that time, there should be a legislative framework that would suit the authorities for holding snap elections.

ReForum: Media outlets are saying that the Kremlin is discussing additional elections laws based on the experience of the constitutional referendum.

Melkonyants: It’s possible that after the September elections we’ll have a new series of amendments to election legislation, but something more subtle. For now, I don’t think that they’ll give the right to name election observers just to Russia’s Civic Chamber. Depriving election participants – parities and candidates – this opportunity would be absolutely shocking. But we may see something in terms of annulling the day of silence and allowing the publication of opinion polls during voting. The authorities would benefit from that.

The administration has powerful media resources at its disposal and it plans to use them to their full potential. If the victory of some specific candidate is reported during the voting process, then that will definitely influence the decision of voters.

ReForum: This might be a naïve question, but what’s needed for elections in Russia to be held fairly, and for their results to actually reflect the will of citizens?

Melkonyants: Election organizers talk a lot about voting rights, that is, about the electorate’s right to vote. They talk about introducing new forms of voting, such as online voting and front-door voting. These rights need to be ensured. But all of that contradicts the serious restrictions being made on passive voting rights. When citizens go to vote at polling stations there’s no one to really choose from. Ballots are essentially sterile. So, the first thing which needs to end is the practice of unjustifiably refusing to register candidates. This practice is made possible with the help of artificial filters and barriers set up by election laws, as well as due to the fact that election commissions refuse to register candidates under far-fetched and fictitious pretexts simply because these candidates aren’t favored by the authorities.

Likewise, political parties with citizen support should be provided the opportunity to officially register. We know examples when parties with genuine support are refused registration, even though a minimum of just 500 signatures are needed. Various tricks make this possible. Meanwhile, other parties created purely for political purposes are registered and do quite well for themselves. Electoral blocks need to be expanded so that parties can unite.

If we look at State Duma elections, then the barrier for entry for political parties needs to be lowered from 5% to 3%.

It’s also critical to ensure punishment for falsification. Even when we uncover falsification and identify those guilty, either criminal cases aren’t opened against these individuals, or they’re released from criminal liability. In extreme cases, the only consequence they face is an administrative fine.

So long as members of the election commission aren’t afraid that they’ll face criminal charges, they’ll continue to falsify vote results when under pressure from the administration or enticed with awards and job promotions.

Lastly, all restrictions imposed on election observers and representatives from the media should be annulled. Pre-accreditation for specific polling stations, notifications about who will be watching which site for which voting days, and the territorial restrictions for observers currently being proposed – all of this needed to be undone or stopped. If there’s nothing to hide, then there needs to be the opportunity for oversight, not concealment.

Despite the restrictions and other filters that the authorities are creating to maintain their grip on power, with proper mobilization society can ensure free and fair elections. We would see the desire for more control and oversight of elections.

Translated by Mackenzie Tubridy