2021 Election Summary
In September 2021, Russia held a three-day parliamentary election. The head of the Central Election Commission (CEC), Ella Pamfilova, announced that United Russia, the dominant political party, won. This means United Russia, President Putin’s party, has held onto its super majority in parliament. According to the election commission, United Russia’s closest rival, the Communist Party, had about 19 percent of the vote. United Russia reigned victorious with nearly 50 percent of the vote (Rosenberg 2021). The party now controls more than two-thirds of the country’s parliament seats. The voting turnout was 51.68 percent this year, surpassing the lowest turnout in Russian history in 2016, which was 47.88 percent (Dixon 2021).
Leaders in opposition to United Russia claim an online voting system is responsible for fraudulently flipping seats held by the opposition to United Russia. Additionally, Putin’s biggest critics were banned from running and there were reports of ballot stuffing and forced voting (Rosenberg 2021).
Silence of the Opposition
Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s most outspoken critic, is currently in jail due to politically motivated charges. Navalny created an app, Smart Voting, which was a platform used to endorse candidates that had the best chance to unseat ruling party incumbents. This platform was blocked in Russia “because it is being used to continue the work of an extremist organization”. Navalny’s organization has been labelled “extremist” by a Moscow Court, which formally bans their activities and puts their supporters at risk of criminal prosecution. The app was also removed from Western big tech platforms the same day voting began (Rosenberg 2021). Russian authorities threatened Apple and Google with large fines if they refused to remove the app.
Many people claimed they were forced by their employers to vote. Pressure to vote ranges “from encouragement to vote to direct intimidation and threats” (Sauer 2021). Russia has a long history of voter intimidation in the workplace, especially in the public sector, which makes up one-third of jobs in the country. A teacher in Moscow, Irina, had no intention of voting until she received a message from her boss instructing her to register to vote online. She was informed that voting was part of her duties and it was not a choice. A state-funded polling agency released a poll that stated 14 percent of all employees at industrial plants had been forced to vote during the upcoming election (Sauer 2021). While half of all the employees said their bosses had mentioned the upcoming election at work (Sauer 2021). Another study showed that in Russia, 33 percent of employees believe their employers could learn about how they voted. This supports the theory that people are more likely to vote for the ruling party, regardless of if their boss told them how to vote. A bus driver, Igor, located in Yaroslav, was told during a staff meeting to register and vote for the ruling party to guarantee he receives his salary (Sauer 2021).
In previous elections, the state was able to send independent monitors to polling stations. Now with online voting, a boss can stand behind his employee and control who they vote for on their computer. While voting intimidation in the workplace has occurred for a long time, online voting facilitates easier intimidation by employers.
A few cities, including the capital, introduced electronic voting during this election. In Moscow, some Communist Party candidates were in the lead in paper balloting until electronic votes were declared at the last minute. Once these electronic votes appeared, these candidates were defeated by members of United Russia. Mikhail Lobanov, who ran as a communist party candidate, was winning with a margin of more than 10,000 votes until online votes were counted. Once the online votes were accounted for, his opponent, a member of the United Russia party, Yevgeny Popov, was suddenly in the lead by more than 20,000 votes (Dixon 2021). Lobanov stated, “such a gigantic difference in the results of voting in precincts on the ground and online voting results cannot be true” (Dixon 2021). The accuracy of counting at the polls can be determined through independent observers. While online voting lacks transparency and independent observation, which means anything goes and there is no way to determine the accuracy of the results.
Following previous elections, multiple videos have been posted showing state business owners mobilizing employees to vote. They frequently use “carousel techniques”, which ensures transportation of selected voters to multiple polling booths on the same election day (Sauer 2021). This allows some voters to cast their vote twice. Online voting has proven very beneficial to avoid these video leaks and to prevent the spread of images portraying “carousel voting”.
A former independent politician, Roman Yuneman, claims that e-voting fraud cost him the election for the Moscow City Duma in 2019 (Sauer 2021). Since then, Russia has rapidly expanded its online voting program. Yuneman now runs Your Choice, which collects complaints from employees claiming they are being pressured to vote.
Another controversial feature of the online voting program in Moscow is highlighted by the fact voters are allowed to go back and change their vote up until the last second. This allows employees to be exposed to further intimidation to alter their vote.
Dixon, Robyn. 2021. “Putin’s United Russia Party Holds Big Majority in Russia’s Three-Day
Parliamentary Elections.” The Washington Post. WP Company. September 21. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russia-election-results/2021/09/20/351973a4-1a05-11ec-bea8-308ea134594f_story.html.
Kramer, Andrew E. 2021. “Navalny to the Russian Opposition: ‘Be Discouraged, a Little
Bit’.” The New York Times. The New York Times. September 23. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/23/world/europe/Russia-opposition-navalny-discouraged.html.
The Moscow Times. 2021. “Russia Blocks Navalny Voting Strategy Website Ahead of
Election.” The Moscow Times. The Moscow Times. September 6. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/09/06/russia-blocks-navalny-voting-strategy-website-ahead-of-election-a74977.
Rosenberg, Steve. 2021. “Russia Election: Putin’s Party Wins Election Marred by Fraud
Claims.” BBC News. BBC. September 20. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-58614227.
Sauer, Pjotr. 2021. “Russians Say They Are Being Forced to Vote in Elections, This Time
Online.” The Moscow Times. The Moscow Times. October 4. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/09/08/russians-say-they-are-being-forced-to-vote-in-elections-this-time-online-a74999.
———. 2021. “Alexei Navalny: Moscow Court Outlaws ‘Extremist’ Organisations.” BBC News.
BBC. June 9. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57422346.