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“We were handed envelopes with 'incentives' for delivering favorable results”: A Russian election official's confession

In Russia, the so-called presidential elections have commenced (they will also take place in Ukrainian territories occupied by the Russian army). And although these elections lack independent candidates, the Central Election Commission is still preparing to commit widespread falsification to demonstrate a show of high popular support for Vladimir Putin. Alexey Molchanov served as the chairman of a precinct election commission in St. Petersburg from 2013 to 2022. From firsthand experience, he knows that in addition to ballot stuffing, there exists a vast array of manipulative mechanisms that allow Territorial Election Commissions to coerce precinct commission chairmen into achieving the Kremlin’s desired result. These include cash-filled envelopes, striking voters off registration lists, theft of ballot boxes, alteration of final vote tallies, and much more.

  • “I was immediately informed that we were to achieve certain election results”

  • Money in envelopes from “grateful sponsors”

  • “If I leave, some crude falsifier will take my place”

  • TEC trickery

  • Early voting

  • Three-day voting and the police

  • Video surveillance

  • Counting votes

  • “The people who work there are prepared to deliver the result needed by the ruling class”

As the head of the election commission, I was responsible for organizing and conducting elections at this polling station, as well as submitting the results to the higher commission. My commission was formed in 2013, and we participated in elections from 2014 onward, including the 2016 elections for the State Duma and the regional legislative body, the 2018 presidential elections, the 2019 elections for the regional head and municipal elections, the 2020 referendum on constitutional amendments, and the 2021 elections for the State Duma and the regional legislative assembly. My term expired in 2023, and I did not plan to participate in further elections, especially after leaving Russia on September 21, 2022, in connection with the well-known presidential decree.

“I was immediately informed that we were to achieve certain election results”

I was recommended for the precinct election commission by a friend who, like me, worked in the public sector and chaired a precinct election commission. In general, the only way to enter this system was either through a recommendation or by appointment from the chairman of the Territorial Election Commission.

At the first meeting with the chairman of the Territorial Election Commission, I was immediately informed that we were to achieve certain election results. A friend of mine called this a standard procedure that all precinct election commission chairmen underwent. This was the first thing that surprised me.

The second surprise was the very principle of staffing precinct election commissions. Legally, either representatives of the parties or independent representatives chosen by working collectives can serve on precinct election commissions and higher commissions. But in reality, I, like other chairmen, was instructed to form my commission by inviting friends and acquaintances.

Chairmen were instructed to form their commissions by inviting friends and acquaintances

My commission consisted of my colleagues. Initially, I approached my friends, but they all refused. Other commissions were entirely composed of relatives of the chairmen with the same last names. This meant that these people, whose names we submitted to the Territorial Election Commission as members of precinct election commissions, were assigned to some parties I haven't even heard of, like the “For Women's Rights” party or the “Democratic Party.”

Some parties, such as Yabloko and A Just Russia, sent their independent representatives. Others – the Liberal Democratic Party and the Communists – always had their own member of the precinct election commission. For example, my colleague was assigned as a secretary from the Liberal Democratic Party, although he had no relation to that party whatsoever. Regarding independent party members, there were also instructions from the chairman of the Territorial Election Commission. Unless they showed initiative, we were told not to notify them about meetings at all or to say, “If you are too busy, you have the right not to participate.” Many of them were happy with this.

Those who were persistent – those who wanted to participate in the activities of the election commission – were recommended to be given the most labor-intensive tasks: putting up posters in the entrances, handing out invitations for young people, and so on. So that such individuals would be occupied on election day itself – for example, registering all the elderly voters.

The very process of the commission's work is arranged in such a way as to facilitate the promotion of those parties and deputies that are beneficial to the ruling class. And bureaucratization is just one method to hinder oversight by commission members and observers.

Money in envelopes from “grateful sponsors”

The commissions' budgets were approved by the chairman of the Territorial Election Commission for each election. From 2013 to 2018, in addition to paying for the hours worked by precinct election commission members, there were also contracts for driving, posting flyers, cleaning, and so on.

Since 2018, payments have been greatly reduced, and only working hours were paid for. Of course, this severely undermined motivation, and then the so-called “support” for election commissions was invented. A week before the elections, envelopes with money were handed out right on the premises of the Territorial Election Commission – somewhere around 50,000 to 60,000 rubles. This was done by people from municipalities. It was very carefully justified: “We are working for the good of the fatherland, the party, and this is an incentive related to delivering favorable election results.” I myself, as the chairman, had to distribute the money among the commission members.

A week before the elections, envelopes with money were handed out right on the premises of the Territorial Election Commission

After the elections, envelope No. 2 was issued. We were told that this was from donors and sponsors who were grateful to the commission for their work. The amounts differed greatly from commission to commission. I received 20,000 rubles, while someone else received 100,000. I was invited to move to another precinct election commission, with the clear promise that the amounts in the envelopes would be different.

As another incentive to deliver the desired result, we were getting constant phone calls throughout election day. The chairman of the Territorial Election Commission or commission members would contact you with a plea to increase certain indicators: “We're struggling. Help us out, you'll be a hero. We'll reward you.”


“If I leave, some crude falsifier will take my place”

The main task for election commissions was to achieve average results across the city. We had a highly intelligent and cunning chairwoman of the Territorial Election Commission, and I believe it was because of her that I lasted so long in my role. She always aimed for third or fourth place from the bottom.

That is, everyone understood that a particular result had to be demonstrated, and most likely, if it was not met, measures would have to be taken – possibly extensive ones. At some polling stations, the media effectively engaged with the population, or there was substantial support for the candidate. At others, not so much. A shrewd chairman would leave this task to someone in need of money or someone who would stop at nothing. There were chairmen who themselves rushed to show inflated results. But such individuals, as a rule, did not last long. They did not face criminal charges, but they were removed from the commissions. The system greatly dislikes and fears scandals.

That is why there had to be “model” precinct election commissions like ours, which carried out the work adequately and seemingly did not violate election laws, so that everything appeared proper.

Many friends immediately condemned me for becoming the chairman of the commission. My sister was an independent observer from Yabloko. She claimed that I was constantly falsifying results. And in general, she was right! On election day, the chairman must be prepared and not tormented by doubts about being a falsifier, or that a criminal case could be brought against him, and so on.

Yes, I had to make small compromises, but I always thought that if I left, some crude falsifier would take my place, simply following the orders given to him.

The only instance when the chairman of the Territorial Election Commission directly suggested that we stuff ballot boxes happened in 2020. I told him outright that I would not do that. Apparently, he was under immense pressure from above. He offered me the chance to leave right in the middle of the elections. I said, “Okay, I'll leave, but who will do the work?” After that, I realized they would be removing me.

After my refusal to stuff ballot boxes I was offered the chance to leave right in the middle of the elections

And indeed, in 2021, they refused to accept the protocol <the official document of election results – The Insider> from my commission. There was a phone call, and I was told, “The protocol needs to be controlled, you shouldn't submit it,” as I was standing at the door ready to leave.

I knew in advance that they would make this absurd phone call and would not accept the protocol. I would have had to deal with highly unpleasant people, but I managed to send a member of my commission to the Territorial Election Commission, and we still managed to submit the protocol.

TEC trickery

The first task that has always been present for all elections is to increase voter turnout. Not many people usually show up, and the pro-government candidate wins. The problem is that turnout needs to be boosted.

The easiest way is for the Territorial Election Commissions to send us lists showing voters who have allegedly obtained absentee certificates to vote elsewhere. Before the start of the election commission's work, we were sent voter lists where 10% of the voters had already been crossed out at the level of the Territorial Election Commission. This is one way to increase turnout. Supposedly, all these people came to the Territorial Election Commission and obtained absentee certificates.

But I noticed a vast difference between the number that was crossed out and those who then came to us with absentee certificates at our polling station. These were the people who had “unregistered” elsewhere. If a “pre-crossed out” person happened to appear, we were supposed to call the Territorial Election Commission, manage each such case individually, and place such persons on an additional list. It happened quite often that “crossed out” people came to vote.

We had a highly intelligent and cunning chairwoman of the Territorial Election Commission. She really did not want to use such methods and calculated everything herself. If someone came with a crossed-out last name, we checked whether it was a “carousel” voting scheme, whether this person had voted somewhere else, and if not, then, and only then was the person entered into the records.

Voting in multi-mandate constituencies is also a ploy to assist precinct election commission chairmen in achieving certain results. Unlike the main voting process, where everyone involved in counting the votes separates them into distinct stacks – this one for United Russia, that one for the Liberal Democratic Party – allowing observers to easily recount them manually, with multi-mandate constituencies, a voter has to put five checkmarks on one ballot. The chairman of the precinct election commission then announces all of them, after which he places them in a single stack. It is impossible to double-check this later. Even if the chairman stands in front of a camera, he can announce any names; no one will be able to make out those checkmarks on that camera footage. With such voting, pro-government candidates usually prevail.

Early voting

Every time <before elections – The Insider>, lists were sent to all precinct election commissions. As I understand it, these were lists of elderly citizens or citizens with disabilities. This was a contingent that did not constitute a protest demographic, but rather, they added a certain support for those candidates who were well-known and frequently appeared on television.

The voting process took place like this: they were given a ballot, they voted, then the ballot was folded in such a way that the results were not visible. A member of the precinct election commission placed it in an envelope, and then these envelopes were placed in a safe. And before the voting procedure began, these ballots were dropped into a regular ballot box. For some reason, the Territorial Election Commission asked us to bring these envelopes on the last day of voting. Then we got them back, and they essentially did not differ in any way. From conversations with other chairmen, I later learned that no one else was required to take the envelopes to the Territorial Election Commission.

Three-day voting and the police

In the 2021 elections, three-day voting was introduced so that everyone could participate. We were told: “After the first and second day, you close the polling station and stay there, and people will arrive who will tell you what to do.”

I called my chairman and said, “We're done. Can we leave?” - “Yes.” But in the chat <where the chairman of the Territorial Election Commission and all the chairmen of the precinct election commissions under him were present – The Insider>, he posted, “Stay.” I told my colleague, “Let's get out of here!”And those who stayed had visitors who came and swapped those safe envelopes with the ballots. The police were present during this.

They <the police – The Insider> are supposed to oversee the process, but they don't do it at all. You can come in, open the door with a key and do whatever you want. No security at all. The police will let all election workers in. You show them your ID, and they won't even ask why you came.

Video surveillance

Video surveillance is an amazing thing. It was introduced after 2012, when there were protests over falsifications, for populist reasons, to make the process transparent. At first, it more or less worked, although we received instructions from the Territorial Election Commission: “The camera should cover the ballot box and ballots. Beyond that, do what you want to make it blind.”

The cameras worked after a fashion in 2014-2016, but they were turned off completely in 2020. I don't know why, but we were told not to worry about it.

The cameras were turned off completely in 2020 and we were told not to worry about it

There were cameras again in 2021, but they were oddly placed and did not cover the entire polling station. We were told not to approach them at all, and that other people were working with them who would resolve all related issues. I watched my cameras and those of other commissions - they were all positioned in a certain way, so you could only see the main ballot box, but you couldn't see what the commissionwas doing.

Counting votes

As a rule, independent observers and commission members controlled the counting of ballots where the checkmark was for an opposition candidate or party, while letting their attention wander from monitoring the rest of the vote counting procedure.

The thickest stack was the ruling party and its representatives. It was recommended to count this stack in different ways. It was difficult to count it accurately, and there could be more mistakes. It seems to me that the territorial election commission was not given enough explanations that due to the stack's thickness, the ballots it contained might be counted incorrectly. And we were told that if there were mistakes – and there could always be some – we should just say that a commission member might make a mistake when counting a thick stack.

There are candidates who are of no interest to anyone, and no one pays attention to their vote totals. The main focus is on the opposition candidate and the candidate from the ruling party. Counting the rest of the ballots is of little interest to anyone.

There are also unused ballots. Their number is immediately calculated mathematically from the voter lists. At least in my commission, we tried to count everything accurately because we knew that otherwise, something might not add up correctly. My secretary had to know the number of voters on the lists, and at 7 o'clock, he had to know how many people had voted, how many had voted at home, how many ballots should be in which boxes. The numbers of all issued and used ballots were already known.

This is no longer a matter of falsification but a matter of simply ensuring the tallies add up properly. I don't know how the people who were trying to falsify or manipulate something did it. My neighbor <the chairman of the neighboring precinct– The Insider> had something not add up as a result, and he had to stay until 5 in the morning. Eventually, everyone got tired of it, and he just crammed all ballots in haphazardly. Everyone just stopped caring about the stuff that didn't add up.

“The people who work there are prepared to deliver the result needed by the ruling class”

The system is very cunning, and it is built to obtain a certain result without extreme consequences. It somehow manages to make sure that everything is fine without crossing red lines. It has worked and will continue to work perfectly and without alternative. You don't even need to do any ballot stuffing. The election commission members are chosen in such a way as to reduce their ability to control the process as much as possible. Even in St. Petersburg, the system is implemented in such a feudal way, not to mention other regions.

So this is not a matter of isolated violations which might invalidate elections. The entire election system is built in such a way that it cannot be independent and fulfill its democratic function of electing the candidates who are included on the ballots, who are allowed to participate. The system of organizing the commissions is such as to ensure the victories of those candidates who represent the ruling parties.

The electoral system needs to be freed from state control. As long as this is not the case, there is no point in talking about any independent choice by Russians. I'm not even talking about the low political culture of the population. It's true, but still they should have the right to put a checkmark on the ballot so that their vote goes to the candidate they chose.

As long as the electoral system is under state control, there is no point in talking about any independent choice by Russians

In Russia, political culture never truly took shape, but the point is that in the 1990s, there was pluralism, and therefore proper elections could be held. It was possible back then, but now there is no such opportunity. All the normal candidates have been removed.

Even if more than 5% vote for Davankov, he will still not be allowed to take credit. The desired result will be achieved no matter what. I see it from my own experience. The people who remained there and work there — they are prepared to deliver the result needed by the ruling class. Everything has been done to ensure their compliance, and all the necessary incentives have been provided, and the bosses will give them a pat on their backs. You'll get your peaceful life and no repression, just do what you're told to do, and get your reward.

I have no illusions about Russia. As Ekaterina Shulman said in Berlin on February 1st: “You must return to Russia, after Putin dies we will be building a bright future there.” I did work in the government system with all these people — and I have no hope left. It will take 100-150 years for some positive changes to occur.

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