10 March 2022
by Grigory Melkonyants
In December 2021, the State Duma passed a bill on the regulation of remote electronic voting. My colleagues and I submitted a review to the Duma, detailing our assessment of the amendments, which lay the foundations for an opaque and unverifiable remote voting system, and recommended against the passing of the bill at its first reading.
In the end, the bill was passed at the first reading. My colleagues and I then submitted a substantial packet of amendments to the Duma. In the end, our amendments were rejected, although the amendments that the Duma Committee did approve overhauled the concept of the bill, from changing its name, to adding in a range of issues entirely unconnected with remote voting, to introducing a new register of foreign agents.
No new mechanisms were introduced to the bill to enable better transparency and monitoring of remote voting, but the amendments that passed will deal a devastating blow to the monitoring of traditional voting.
In the case of precinct and territorial commissions, there will no longer be a member of the commission with the right to an advisory vote. This means that opportunities for the public to observe elections will be more than halved. This status was the main avenue by which candidates could meaningfully monitor elections, as individuals with this status, unlike those with observer status, were allowed to receive copies of documents. This status will be retained only in the Central Electoral Commission and in regional commissions, albeit with severely truncated rights. For instance, these commission members will not be able to ask questions or request recounts.
The requirement for candidates to provide their lists of observers no later than three days before polling day, which has already applied to observers in precinct commissions for six years, has now been extended to territorial commissions. Submission of lists three days in advance allows fraudsters to know in advance which polling stations will have no observers and, moreover, there have been instances of observers being put under pressure before polling day to withdraw from monitoring missions.
The ability to remove observers and stop commission members from working has been extended, so that it now covers not only the rooms where voting is held, but also the rooms in which protocols on the election results are received and drawn up.
In cities with more than 500,000 voters, there are plans to create “rubber” polling stations for more than 3,000 voters. This significantly hinders the monitoring of procedure, as the increase in size of polling stations is accompanied by a decrease in the number of observers. Although on paper the number of observers per candidate has been increased to three, this does not change anything in practice since, as was the case before, only one of them will be allowed to work in the room.
In addition to this, the length of time for which individuals with extremism convictions are barred from standing for election will be increased to up to five years from the moment when the conviction is spent.
It will be easier to postpone elections in emergencies or situations of high alert. Now, they can be postponed even when there is no threat to voters’ lives or health.
The amendments which have been passed also propose a raft of other changes (for instance, the abolition of municipal commissions).
Recent years have seen systematic restrictions imposed on public election monitoring: a ban on public video streaming, attacks on observer organisations, stoking of conflicts between commission members and observers, the introduction of accreditations and seniority requirements for journalists covering elections, the introduction of preliminary registration for observers, and now the abolition of the status of commission member with the right to an advisory vote which was so important and effective in election monitoring.
To my mind, the dismantling of what was left of these monitoring mechanisms, along with the refusal to pass legislation which would strengthen transparent procedures for monitoring remote electronic voting, are aimed at castrating our elections and turning them into something resembling the Belarusian ones, with all that that entails.
Translated by Judith Fagelson