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JURIST's Russia Correspondent is Robert Teets, Jr., Visiting Professor, Academic Legal University, Institute of State & Law, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow.
[Moscow; Special to JURIST] In this report and the next I offer some anecdotes and reflections as an official observer accredited by the Russian Election Commission (REC) for the elections held on 19 December 1999 and 26 March 2000 for the Russian Duma and President, respectively.

The legal foundation for Russia's electoral process is laid out in article 32 of the Russian Constitution

1. Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to participate in managing State affairs both directly and through their representatives.
2. Citizens shall have the right to elect and be elected to State government bodies and local government bodies, as well as to participate in referendums.
3. Citizens who are recognized as incapable by a court, and citizens who are kept in places of imprisonment under a court sentence, shall not have the right to elect and be elected.
* * *
5. Citizens shall have the right to participate in the administration of justice.

In addition, there are three fundamental statutes governing the processes of voting, political candidacy, and elections. The first of these is the 1994 Statute on the basic guarantees of electoral rights and the right of citizens of the Russian Federation to participate in a referendum. The other two specific to Duma and Presidential elections provide for domestic as well as international election observation - see articles 11, 29, and 30 of the Statute governing the election of Deputies to the State Duma (24 June 1999), and articles 11, 21, and 22 of the Statute on the election of the President of the Russian Federation (31 December 1999).

In the spirit, if not the letter, of these instruments the Russian Federation has, through the REC, extended invitations to numerous organizations with an interest in providing advice, observers, and other election-related assistance. Those entities, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and its 54 member governments, have in turn elicited, facilitated, and supported the observation role of individuals such as myself.

My decision to become an election observer in Russia was prompted in significant part by my frustration in being unable, when outside the United States, to exercise the franchise to which I am nominally entitled as an American citizen and California resident. Most individuals in the US and Russia would agree that the exercise of one's franchise is a right of one's citizenship, not to mention a responsibility of membership in society. Unfortunately, in nearly all of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, access to the ballot box is not an easy matter. Despite being longstanding subjects of criticism, if not ridicule, by our media and political leaders, the Russians have got it right: this nascent democracy has the intelligence and courtesy to allow its expatriate citizens to go to Russian embassies and consulates to cast their ballots in parliamentary and presidential elections. It has been estimated in The Moscow Times that there are some 850,000 Russian citizens who have been able to vote in this manner. To make such an inquiry or proposal to the U.S. embassy in Moscow would at best yield, I regret to report, a quip along the lines of "you gotta be kiddin'!"

The Duma Election of 19 December 1999

In December, I chose to serve as an election observer for the OSCE. My assigned partner, Thomas, was a German university student here in Russia on a six-month internship. Together we shared the task of attending three lengthy briefings and then spent some 22 hours straight on our feet at 10 different precincts in Moscow, as well as at the territorial (or regional) election commission where the completed and carefully counted ballots (or "bulletins" as they are called in Russian) were ultimately delivered along with the tabulated results (in the form of so-called "protocols"). We were accompanied by a very helpful pair of Russians預 driver and translator on our long morning, afternoon, evening, night, and early morning on the 19th and 20th of December.

We were challenged to keep focussed on the voter identification, registration, and vote casting process in a series of drab, mostly public school buildings. Two venues, which stood-out by being quite different, were an odd sort of a basketball court with no place for any audience and a classroom with extraordinarily fine, color murals of characters from the skazka by Pushkin.

But for the thorough guidance provided by a 100-plus page OSCE "Guide for Short Term Observers", their 2-page checklist and set of questions, one's thoughts could easily have started to wander with the steady flow of people 10 different presidents of precincts to meet, their secretaries, several dozen domestic observers from the Communist party; from Prava Sil; from Yabloko; from individual candidacies (most noticeably Pavel Borodin from Yeltsin's staff, who unsuccessfully ran against Luzhkov in the Moscow mayoral race).

There were 4 ballots which most every voter needed to digest and navigate:

  1. the single-mandate contest for one of 225 seats in the State Duma;
  2. the federal party list (there were 26 different parties or coalitions, called blocs) for the other 225 seats (based upon a system of proportional representation once a 5% threshold minima was met);
  3. the City of Moscow mayoral race (in which there were 10 candidates including the 63-year-old incumbent);
  4. the contest for seats in one of the so-called "sobraniya" (or local dumas) in different regions of Moscow (which has somewhere between 8 and 12 million people depending on whose population count, you choose to believe).
Poignant images which remain with me include two elderly women who were so homebound such that a team (including the two of us and our translator) brought a so-called "mobile" ballot box to their clean and simple but also worn, faded, and cramped apartments in very run-down and dreary buildings dating from the early years of the Khruschev era.

During the course of the day and night, a small ocean of faces and people要oters and their family members庸loated around and by us. Although snow was present only in patches, the outside temperature was "moroz" (or below freezing) so the little kiddies in attendance were all elaborately bundled-up. So much so that their arms stuck-out almost perpendicular from their sides as they trundled about with a duck-like gait.

Just when the abbreviated winter's daylight began to fail and a touch of monotony to our collective undertaking began to be palpable, we experienced a dose of the comic. The precinct which was our 8th stop was in a spanking new school for a brand-new housing development just outside of the MKAD (or Moscow Automotive Ring Road).

Of course, one had to be an outsider in order to see the humor of an angry crowd of new Russians in opulent fur coats. With cell phones pressed to their ears, they were vociferously complaining to precinct officials, workers, the media, and one another about the fact that the supply of bulletins for the mayoral race had been used up and that they very much wanted to have a say about who would be elected as the mayor of Moscow.

Jumping ahead perhaps 6 hours, it was at the territorial election commission (TEC), after the ballots had been opened, sorted, counted, recounted, and tabulated on the requisite protocols, that the precinct president and I engaged in some hallway banter. The evening following the official close of balloting had been a flurry of activity as parallel teams sorted and counted bulletins, while other reviewed and closed-out the voter lists for the several addresses covered by this precinct, and yet others managed and closed-down the state automated computer system. Now with the bulletins bundled and turned-in, there was a delay which warrants explanation.

Precinct 1334 where we started and ended our Sunday - as well as started our Monday - was one of a few from across Russia set-up with computerized scanners which recognized and read each of the completed bulletins, counted them, made a running tally, and electronically transmitted that information to the central computer banks of the Central Election Commission.

Our precinct president, Oleg Arkadeavich, was weary at around 1:40 a.m., when we traveled for the first time to the territorial election commission, as were we all. To start with, the officials there were nonplused by our alien presence. Next a controversy arose because our hand-counted and recounted results were at variance with the computer scanned vote count. Finally our protocols did not have their numbers written-out in words as well as in Arabic numerals. These differences were modest but real.

There were 3256 ballots cast on four different bulletins and a multiplicity of choices on each. There was mandatory reconciliation to be made on voter lists, absentee certificates received, absent ballots issued, early as well as mobile voters, blank ballots remaining, ballots invalidated the official protocol presented 17 variations on this core of questions.

The words which Oleg and I exchanged were concise owing principally to my still modest verbal skills. We wondered out loud: what is more important, the numbers, or the less quantitative aspects of an election, viz. its accessibility, its transparency, its honesty?

As regards the last, one might quickly admit that numbers are the real measure of honesty. But both of us found agree that at precinct 1334, there had been a diligent, open, and honest election.

Despite our agreement, the TEC sent us all back to the precinct to revise the protocols notwithstanding the results still being at variance with the computer data base before we made a second trip back to them again at around 2:45 a.m. on Monday.

One fascinating outcome in the Russian Duma election occurred owing to article 73, sub-part 11 of the Federal Statute on the Election of Deputies of the State Duma which provides among other boxes which may be checked one which casts a vote "against all federal lists of candidates." Hence when the vote tabulation is done there is a provision (article 77, sub-part 23) that if those votes casts "against all candidates" exceed the number cast in favor of the candidate receiving the highest number of votes, a new election will have to be held (article 79, sub-part2[b]). In 9 out of the 225 single mandates districts, the "against all candidates" vote won!

On 13 February 2000, the OSCE issued their Final Report on the elections. Whereas the electronic and print media had been rife with innuendo about voting fraud on a grand scale, the OSCE held a trumping set of cards. Some 430 observers visited 2,300 polling stations (out of 94,000) in 30 of the 88 subjects-of-the-Federation where voting took place (the conflict in Chechnya prevented the conduct of Duma elections there) and in 100 of the 224 election districts. These observers gathered numerical data at each polling station visited as well as a large number where the votes were counted and formal protocols were tabulated. Authenticated (i.e. signed copies) were gathered by the observers and delivered to the OSCE which could then compare the figures which were compiled and reported in subsequent days.

The OSCE concluded that:

  • the political campaigns were competitive and pluralistic with 26 parties and blocs ultimately competing on the federal list and 3 to 24 candidates appearing on ballots for the single-mandate constituency races.
  • a sophisticated election system was enhanced by a significant increase in the level of transparency afforded to political participants in all phases of the process. Political parties, blocs and independent candidates had generous access and opportunity to monitor the process through non-voting representatives on all election commissions and observers were on hand at over 98% of the polling stations visited by international observers on election day.
  • the Central Election Commission performed effectively as an independent professional body that endeavored to fully implement the electoral legislation on an equal and unbiased basis. The competence and expertise of election administrators to carry out well organized and accountable elections are firmly institutionalized.
  • polling station commissions demonstrated a notable commitment to carrying out their duties in compliance with the law and procedural requirements. Almost universally, the reports of short-term observers across the country commended the work carried out by polling station commissions. Although complex and time-consuming, procedures instituted by the Central Election Commission for documenting, polling and counting activities provided a solid basis for transparency, accountability and accuracy that fully met accepted international standards.
In sum, most of the press speculation turned out to have been without substance - perhaps a few American states would do well to emulate the Russian example!

Robert Teets, Jr.
JURIST Russia Correspondent

Visiting Professor
Academic Legal University
Institute of State & Law
Russian Academy of Sciences
Moscow, RUSSIA

April 5, 2000


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