Grigory Melkonyants: On scandalous changes to election rules under cover of the pandemic

14 May 2020

by Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the board of Golos, the movement for the protection of voters’ rights

 Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Facebook]

May 13th was a dark day for Russian elections. The State Duma adopted two bills, one in the third, the other in the second reading. After studying them, it is clear that amendments to the next election process will make the registration of candidates through the collection of signatures more difficult. The amendments will expand voting outside the polling station uncontrollably; simplify the use of postal and remote electronic voting; and deny new categories of citizens the right to run in elections. We break down the changes in five parts. 

1 Candidate registration via collecting signatures to be more difficult. 

The threshold for invalid and inaccurate signatures required to refuse a candidate’s registration will drop from 10 to 5%. It’s now two times easier to prevent a candidate from registering. 

In addition to adding a signature and date, a voter must personally enter his/her name, patronymic and surname on a candidate registration petition. This will make it more difficult for a candidate to collect the necessary signatures and far easier for electoral commissions to discard applications. This is because three additional words will now be checked by a handwriting expert using an Interior Ministry digital verification system that is not always accurate. 

New restrictions are to be introduced for candidates’ petitions. Any list must now have five lines for affixing voters’ signatures and these can be only filled out on one side. This prevents a candidate’s electoral headquarters from choosing the most convenient way of collecting signatures. It has been established that voters’ signatures can be collected using the State Service portal system. However, the number of signatures collected using this method cannot exceed half the number of overall signatures. This restriction devalues ​​the idea of ​​collecting signatures electronically, which might have been used to protect a candidate from the claims made by handwriting experts and the Interior Ministry’s inaccurate databases. If they really want to, they’ll be able to find the 5% “inaccuracy” threshold and refuse to register a candidate.

2. Uncontrolled expansion of voting outside of polling stations.

A significant section of the amendments is devoted to increasing provisions for voting outside polling stations, both before and on election day.

The list of acceptable reasons to vote “from home” has become more and more “flexible”.  A “requirement to care for those in need, and other respectable reasons that limit access to polling stations” has been added to list of already respectable reasons, such as “ owing to health and disability” that necessitate someone voting from home.

The opportunities for certain groups to vote early are expanding (this is when commissions travel to where voters live). If earlier this only happened in hard-to-reach and remote areas, commissions now accept votes in areas that are “difficult to get to” up to fifteen days before election day.

What’s more, commissions can set up polling stations “in adjoining territories, common use areas and elsewhere” for those who have submitted applications to vote from home (the list of reasons for which is now open), up to a week before election day. This type of voting does not facilitate public scrutiny and could become an easy way for people to falsify votes. Much now depends on the Central Electoral Commission which now has to determine the procedure for such a vote.

3. Postal and electronic distance voting procedures have been simplified

The Central Electoral Commission has been given the authority to decide both the regions and the appropriate procedures in which and whereby postal or electronic voting. If previously it was necessary to introduce the changes through legislation at the regional level, now the Central Electoral Commission will be responsible for them. It will be difficult for the public to exert any control over this type of voting. The risks associated with postal voting include the inability to be sure that the voter has voted both in person and voluntarily, whether all the ballot papers have been included, and whether some kind of cheating with the ballots or envelopes has taken place. The risks associated with distance voting are even more, including infringements of the secret ballot, administrative pressure, breakdowns in the system, and the substitution of ballot papers.

4. New categories of citizens are deprived of their right to stand for election

 These include those who have been sentenced to prison for a crime, classified as of one of  the 50 medium-severe crimes, from the public distribution of significantly false information or the repeated infringement of the rules on organizing meetings to engaging in swindles which are giving a ‘nightmare’ to business.

There’s the risk of a rise in the number of fabricated prosecutions of political and public activists, who will be charged as a preventative measure. To curb someone’s activity it is not essential to lock them up, it is enough to give them a suspended sentence, which means that they can only stand for election eight years after its expiry. In our conditions, observers are accustomed to thinking of a suspended sentence as very little different from an acquittal, but now new problems will arise.

5. A positive proposal concerning the forms for completely sheets of signatures is also being introduced

Electoral commissions will henceforth only issue for use a form for the collection of lists of signatures that will contain information about the elections. This is good, since candidates will have a form ready for use, they won’t need to draw up a new one themselves for each election under threat of rejection by the electoral commissions in the event that their form contains erroneous information about the election. However, after the first reading of the bill, we expressed concern about the risks if the electoral commission itself makes a mistake in drawing up the form. Our concerns were heard, and by the second reading amendments had been made to the effect that inaccuracies in the electoral commission’s form, and consequently in the lists of signatures collected by the candidate, cannot service as a basis to invalidate the voters’ signatures.

Translated by Matthew Quigley and Mary McAuley

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