Last Sunday Russians voted in the Duma (Russia’s parliament) elections. As you probably know, Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, won the majority of the votes, but a lot of people are unhappy with the results, and the internet is flooded with videos and reports of fraud at polling precincts across the country. On Monday evening, around 8,000 pissed off Russians participated in what was one of the largest opposition demonstrations in years. The protests continued on Tuesday, and more are planned for this weekend. The mood is very tense.
VICE recently opened an office in Russia and our new comrades there sat down with a political strategist who worked on United Russia’s campaign. He openly admitted to cheating last weekend, and gave us the hows and whys of all the shady stuff that happened. For obvious reasons, he spoke on the condition of anonymity.
All photos from Monday night's protests.
VICE: You’ve worked for United Russia’s campaign over the past few months, right?
Yes. I was working as a general political strategist in one of Russia’s regions. In Russia, the campaign is under the control of each region’s governor, and his assistants are responsible for the budget. Political strategists are responsible for the “content” of the campaign and are in charge of the local campaign workers.
What can you tell me about the “carousel” method of cheating, where people bring a pack of pre-filled ballots into the voting booth and drop them all in the ballot box?
First of all, this method of cheating, which was only recently discovered by the Russian media, is not actually the carousel method, it is the “streamlet” method. The carousel is an easier and more effective method. According to Russian law, you can walk into a voting office, grab a ballot, and walk out without ever placing your vote. So basically, a guy goes into a precinct and takes his ballot without placing a vote. Then he goes outside and marks it. Now he can go up to anyone on the street and say, “Go to the voting precinct and pick up your blank ballot, but drop this ballot into the box, and bring the blank one back to me.” And if he brings the blank ballot to the guy on the street, he gets 500 rubles (about $16).
And how exactly does the “streamlet” method work?
The streamlet method only works with absentee ballots. Each region of Russia gets a fixed number of absentee ballots; in my case it was around 13,000. So, I had to pick up all of these ballots—for this I used hundreds of students, homeless guys, and other people— and then I asked the local voting precinct chiefs to help me use the absentee ballots, and they agreed. On Election Day, my guys visited the precincts and showed their passports and absentee ballots, which were assigned to someone else. Because the precinct manager was informed in advance, he didn’t even look at their passports, and these people were able to vote using someone else’s ballot. But this method is not perfect. First of all, it is kind of risky. Secondly, nobody can guarantee these fucking people will do what they were told to do.
Is this a new thing in Russian elections?
No, nothing new really happened here this time. Everybody used the same methods for cheating in the 90s.
How do you find people willing to participate in these carousels and streamlets? Do you use the same group of people in every election?
No, we put together a new group each time, in each region. It’s not hard to find people for this—everybody is interested in making 1000 rubles (about $32). Filling out fraudulent ballots is just like any other business.
There are a lot of YouTube videos showing cheating in the elections. Seems like people were pretty brazen about it.
Well, this Sunday was a total mess. It was kind of a unique situation, because a lot of websites were blocked or taken down with denial of service attacks, and that had never happened in Russia before.
But, you know, the endless number of hysterical hipsters throughout social media kind of “legitimized” my election fraud! I was checking the TV and websites and I realized that there is total lawlessness in the whole country. I realized nothing could stop me from stealing votes. We cheated as much as possible.
Who are the election observers in the precinct? Are they effective in combating election fraud?
Depends. Some observers from our side are useful when the votes are being counted. They say to outside election observers, “Oh, you found something fraudulent? Oh, well, we’ll fix it in a second, but please don’t write any official complaints, OK?”
Are there any other methods for fraud?
Of course there are. The largest fraud occurs when the voting is over, and precincts start to count the ballots. The fraud that goes on at this stage in the election is really hard to spot, and only very experienced and well-trained observers will catch it. They open the ballot boxes and put all the ballots on the table. Then they start to sort them into piles—this ballot is for United Russia, this one is for Spravedlivaya Rossiya [Fair Russia], this one is for Yabloko [the Russian United Democratic Party], and so on. After an hour, when everybody is getting tired, the employees start picking out the ballots for Yabloko and putting them into the United Russia pile.
It is a really complicated psychological practice, you know. Everything looks fine, nobody added new illegal ballots, so the total number of ballots is still the same, and nobody notices. Or, if they do notice, it’s always possible to say, “Oh, whoops. Won’t happen again. Blah blah blah.”
Also, we can play with the marks on the ballots. For example, we found a ballot with no marks in a proper box, but on it someone had written, “Fuck You.” So the precinct manager says, “Don’t you think that this ‘fuck you’ means that this guy wanted to vote for United Russia?” So this “fuck you” turns into a vote for United Russia.
What happens when all the ballots are counted?
The count goes into an official report, and observers can get copies of this document—by the way, I threw out all observers from all my precincts when I realized what was happening in Moscow and other regions. For example, we measured the temperatures of the observers from the communist side and said, “Oh, you’re sick, you have to go home. Get out of here.” There are tons of possible actions that can be a cause for removal. We might say that someone looks sick, or somebody shouted, or was provoking a fight—anything can become a reason for removal of an observer. So the observers didn’t even see the count.
OK. What happens with the official reports from precincts then?
Then the precinct election commission (PEC) brings all the papers and the official report to the territory election commission (TEC). The TEC collects all the reports from the area, and they can refuse to receive whatever they want from the PEC. They can say, like, “Oh, here are some mistakes. You made some technical errors and we can’t upload the data to the Central Election Commission’s site. You have to go back and fix all the errors.” But it’s not easy to control the PEC. Usually PEC employees are schoolteachers and principals, and they don’t really care about elections. They don’t even want to work for us for extra cash, and they certainly don’t want to work for free. The TEC is much more open for cooperation—the employees there are experienced, specially chosen people with a good income and bonuses. So we usually work through the TEC.
Can’t the Central Election Commission (CEC) just alter the final results?
Unfortunately, that’s impossible. The CEC can only assist—they can close their eyes. But when you upload data to the CEC’s website, everybody can see it at the same time, and no one can alter this data.
Do you think that the results of this election mean the failure of United Russia?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Nowadays, a lot of members of United Russia think that the whole system has to be changed. I haven’t met anyone who really believes and supports United Russia in a long time. We, the political strategists, work for this system because it is all that really exists. The opposition has another problem—they don’t have a real candidate, a real leader. United Russia will not fail until the opposition chooses a real candidate.
Will you work in the March presidential election?
Who will win?