What to Do on September 8

September 9, 2013

This is a tongue-in-cheek post about what the Russian opposition should do on election day. Obviously, the election has already past, but this article actually provides a really good “idiot’s guide” to how votes in Russia are counted, and how they are supposed to be.

Alexei Navalny is claiming that the incumbent mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, did not receive 50% of the vote. If true this would trigger a runoff election between Navalny and Sobyanin. Sobyanin claims that he has at least 51% of the vote. Click here for updates.

As this is so close, it is important to note that the election commission might be incentivized to throw out “spoiled ballots,” a decision which would benefit Sobyanin, and one that is foreshadowed by this article. – Ed.

Come and Vote for Sobyanin

Aside from the true supporters of the current government, even some of its opponents are inclined to this option. Their arguments in support of this approach amount to three main reasons: “he’s a strong manager”; “I’m happy with everything in the city” and “the rest are worst.”

From the perspective of an election process, the main plus for those voting for Sobyanin is that unlike supporters of other candidates, they can be sure that their votes will not be lost and will definitely be counted in their pristine form. Moreover, given his rating, voting for the acting mayor will raise the likelihood that the elections will finish in one round (a second round will be scheduled if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote). Meanwhile, those who vote for Sobyanin as the “least of all evils” should be prepared for the fact that after the elections, they will inevitably be counted among the supporters of President Putin (he allowed Sobyanin to run for office) and United Russia (Sobyanin is a member of the bureau of United Russia’s Supreme Council).

Come and Vote for Any Candidate Except Sobyanin

Many representatives of the opposition are promoting this strategy, about which there are two alternative opinions: 1) such an approach takes into account the diversity of views of opposition-minded citizens and also raises the likelihood of a second round; 2) opponents of the existing government must vote not only for Navalny, because the more votes he gets, the better for the opposition movement as a whole.

Under the Election Code of Moscow, the result of each opposition candidate taken individually does not influence at all the fate of the elections as a whole. The main point is how much the candidate who takes first place gets – whether he gets 50%+1 vote and immediately wins, or whether he gets even one vote less, and goes to a second round. And since each vote given to one of the opposition candidates is only lost for Sobyanin, such a strategy really increases the likelihood of a second round. But the question of how the government will treat the personal result of any individual candidate and what conclusions are made from this is not regulated by the election code and is relegated to the sphere of political forecasts.

Come and Spoil Your Ballot

The majority of supporters for this option (in the Duma elections it was called NaKh-NaKh [“screw them all”] equate this with the strategy of “anybody but Sobyanin”. Their few opponents are certain that “spoiled” ballots may not be taken into consideration at all in the count and consequently, such actions increase the number of votes for the government’s candidate.

The percentage of votes for each candidate are calculated from the number of “voters who have taken part in the ballot” which is “determined by the number of ballots found in voting boxes.” That is, both ballots declared invalid – i.e., where there are no checks at all, or checks for several candidates – will be included in the total sum (100%). With such an approach, used in particular in the last presidential and gubernatorial elections, the spoiling of ballots really was analogous to a strategy of “for anybody but…” because it also takes votes away from the favorite.

However, Leonid Kirichenko, an expert on election law, believes that the formulation of the law is misleading – it would be more clear to say “the number of voters who have taken part in the elections, equal to the number of ballots.” So it would seem that if necessary (say, if Sobyanin will lack several tens of a percentage point to reach the required 50%) the Moscow City Elections Commission is quite capable of “seeing the light” and “in complete accordance with the true letter of the law” discount the spoiled ballots from the total number. To be sure, such a “vision” will most likely cause a terrible scandal since the likelihood of such a turn of events is extremely small.

Come and Take Away Your Ballot

This option is also recommended by some opposition members as an analog to the strategy of “anybody but” or a deliberate spoiling of the ballot. The argumentation is simple: you can do anything you want with the ballot, you can even eat it – just don’t give it up to “the enemy.”

In its profound meaning of protest, taking the ballot away from the polling station perhaps may seem like covering the ballot with crosses or swear words but there is nothing in common between them in terms of the legal consequences. Ballots declared invalid remain in the box, are counted in the tallying and are even entered into a separate line in the summary record. Any ballot carried away is not counted anywhere and remains only in the mind (or in the stomach) of whoever took it away. The voter who took such a ballot is not considered to have even taken part in the voting. The only thing that one can concede here is that at least that particular ballot cannot be used for falsification. But taking into account the relatively low turn-out, the falsifiers are already going to have plenty of material for their machinations.

Obtain an Absentee Ballot and Not Come to the Polls

In the federal elections of 2011-2012, this option was promoted by some experts as an effective means of combating falsifications. The reasoning was that your vote would remain with you and then would not be stolen or given away to the “wrong” candidate. And the more people take absentee ballots, the less will remain for falsifiers to use to organize all sorts of machinations.

This option really does solve the task at hand – by law, a citizen who has taken an absentee ballot is removed from the list of voters at his district and no one can vote for him then. But that’s in theory. In practice, however, such a voter can simply be “forgotten” to be removed from the lists so that his vote can then boldly be used “as intended,” knowing that he will definitely not be coming to the polls. Furthermore, the number of absentee ballots has been sharply reduced in the current elections; if in the presidential elections of 2012 in Moscow, 200,000 absentee ballots were handed out, but no more than 168,000 people voted with them, then in the mayoral elections of 2013, so far only 10,000 absentee ballots have been ordered – that is only a hundredth of a percent of the expected turnout.

Don’t Come to the Polls

The arguments of the advocates of a total boycott of the elections have not changed for ten years now; your votes will be stolen anyway, the elections are deliberately falsified and any part you take in them will legitimize this falsehood. Amen.

The subjective motives for not taking part in the ballot can range from “Down with the bloody regime!” to “I could care less.” But from the perspective of balloting procedures, the result will be the same: a boycott reduces the turnout, and if there is low activity of voters, objectively, it will be simpler to influence the outcome with the help of any type of machinations. Simply because, for example, with 500 people voting at a polling station and 50 ballots thrown out, that’s 10%, and with 1,500 it’s only 3.33%. Especially because opponents of the government deliberately boycott elections, and that means that each such person who doesn’t come to the polls is a vote lost by some opposition candidate.

To be sure, in some cases the low turnout may work in favor of the opposition. In the opinion of pollsters, that is what happened in the Duma elections of 2011, when some of the pro-government electorate stayed home, believing that United Russia would win without them anyway, and the opposition-minded voters displayed greater activity. However, this is rather a question of political psychology and not electoral law.