It’s not often you get called a saboteur, a potential radioactive bomber, and an American spy, and consider it a great day at the office. But exactly that happened to Reuters journalist Jack Stubbs—a Brit—this month when covering Russia’s parliamentary elections.
Recent Russian elections have been marred by widespread allegations of ballot box stuffing and carousel voting (when the same voters are bussed from polling location to polling location to place multiple votes)—and these were no better. President Vladimir Putin’s allies in the United Russia party romped to an overwhelming majority in a vote described by pro-democracy NGO Freedom House as “not free and not fair.”
Reuters sent 16 reporters to 11 randomly chosen polling stations across central and western Russia and found a host of irregularities, including massively inflated vote counts, a polling officer taking pre-prepared ballots out of a raincoat, and people voting more than once. As a result, the Russian Election Commission said it would investigate some of their findings.
But Stubbs’s escapade stood out. (Disclosure: he and I worked together for Reuters in London for a short period in 2013.)
Stubbs, along with colleagues Svetlana Burmistrova and Olga Sichkar, was dispatched to Ufa, capital of the oil-rich Federal Republic of Bashkortostan near the Ural mountains. The plan was to stay all day at two or three stations, counting voters on a clicker in order to see if the official count matched their tally.
Sichkar was kicked out of her polling station as soon as she arrived, despite having the right accreditation, Stubbs says. Meanwhile, he went to join Burmistrova at a station in the village of Knyazevo, where she had been allowed to stay—although only after two hours of arguing with officials. And even then, they weren’t exactly welcome with open arms.
“Throughout the whole day they were trying to just get us out the room for whatever reason,” he says. “They were offering us tours of the facilities, offering us food in the other room, trying to get us to go outside with a cigarette.”
By around midday, the official vote numbers shown online was double what they had counted on their clicker, Stubbs says. Burmistrova then left for a break, leaving Stubbs to continue counting solo.
“After being on my own for about half an hour, this old man came up to me and launched into this spiel about how I was an American agent, how I was there to disrupt and discredit the electoral process, and was being quite aggressive,” says Stubbs, whose instinctive reply was, ”actually, I’m British.”
The man soon made an official complaint to the station head, who asked Stubbs to leave the room for a “hearing.” He refused to leave. Shortly after, the station head then asked Stubbs if his clicker was connected to explosives in his backpack. The old man had apparently suggested he was some sort of bomber, which Stubbs was happy to disprove by showing a backpack empty of weaponry. The officer left but soon returned with an official written warning, in which the complainant accuses Stubbs of having “radioactive equipment in his jacket pocket, which is threatening to [the complainant’s] life and health, and also breaks his constitutional rights.”
“It’s absolutely nuts,” Stubbs says of the warning. “I guess at that point the polling officer thought he had a threat he could hang over our heads so that we’d behave.”
The upshot of the debacle: despite having double the Reuters count at midday, the station mysteriously ended up publishing a turnout within about 20 votes of Stubbs and Burmistrova’s tally.
On hearing the story, Russian blogger Alexander Kireev crunched the region’s voting figures and found the Knyazevo polling station the Reuters duo had cased may have been the only one in the area delivering honest results. Almost every other station had basically the exact same results, closely matching the region’s officially-reported average turnout of 65.9 percent—with 48.1 percent voting for United Russia. In Stubbs’s station, however, the turnout was just 22.7 percent, with 34.9 percent for Putin’s supporters United Russia.
This method of uncovering potential fraud—by implying broad falsification trends through a small sample of stations—has been employed in Russian elections before and holds up analytically, says Mark Galeotti, senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. ”A lot of people have re-crunched and tried to poke holes in the actual model and frankly it’s stood up very well,” he says. “Broadly speaking it gives us a pretty good index of precisely just how far this has been done.”
In this particular election, Galeotti says, the Kremlin had originally planned to tamp down the spurious behavior and give voters something close to a fair result. But, accord to Galeotti, there was a change of plan when the Kremlin realized it wanted a strong majority in parliament to enact various highly desired measures this fall, possibly including tough austerity cuts to Russia’s floundering economy. (Neither the Kremlin nor the electoral commission replied to written requests for comment on this story.)
“They really needed a solid majority, so they had to go back to the instruments they had at their disposal…the really kind of crass stuffing of ballot boxes, carousel voting, all the old methods,” Galeotti says.
For Arch Puddington, head of research at Freedom House, Reuters’ reporting shows how badly broken Russian democracy and its electoral system have gotten. Opposition parties are “beaten down and exhausted,” while local election monitors receive similar treatment, and authorities make things too difficult for international monitors to do their jobs, he says.
“What Reuters did was very impressive but even Reuters didn’t have the resources to do more than…11 voting districts. So they can make this point in a few election districts and they can make an impact in this one district but that’s a drop in the bucket,” he says, adding that in reality “these elections are pretty well decided a year before they actually take place.”
As a result, there’s a general consensus among Russians that there’s little point in even going to the polls.
“It was truly disastrous that even by the bloated official figure that more than half Russians did not bother voting,” says Galeotti. ”People decide that there is no point: This is not a system that listens to us, this is not a system that cares…why bother?”
Stubbs says his taxi driver put it even more colorfully: ”What’s the point of voting? It’s like pissing in a blocked toilet.”