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Russia: New Election Law Creates More Flexibility in Setting Length and Place of Voting

(Aug. 10, 2020) On July 31, 2020, the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, signed a law that changes the way federal and local elections and referenda are conducted and monitored. Federal Law No. 267 on Amending Select Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation (Amendment Law) amends the Federal Law on Basic Guarantees of Electoral Rights of Russian Citizens, Russia’s main law governing elections and the electoral process, and introduces two new major provisions: voting is now allowed over a three-day period and can be conducted outside of the designated voting places. (Amendment Law arts. 1.11.1 & 2.14.)

The import of the new provisions is that the election commission, which organizes the election, may decide to hold elections for several days in a row but no longer than three days. This extended voting period may also be ordered for the second round of the elections. The election commission may also decide to place the ballot box outside of the polling station at any other place of common use, such as a courtyard or public square. To ensure the participation of groups of voters who live in remote settlements or are located in other places without space equipped for elections or with otherwise poor infrastructure, the election commission may decide to conduct “voting on demand” and send the ballot box to the places where such groups are located. (Art. 2.14.) The newly introduced measures eliminate early and absentee voting, which were previously allowed. (Art. 1.11.4.)  Vote counting is to begin after the polling stations have closed on the last day of voting. (Art. 2.14.) Each political party may appoint no more than two observers for each day of voting at each polling station. Election observers must be Russian citizens who are eligible to vote and can participate in the voting they observe. Observers can be present during regular voting hours, which are usually between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., and are allowed to monitor elections only in the region where their permanent residency is registered. (Art. 1.6.) The previous law did not include the residence restriction and allowed Russian citizens to monitor elections anywhere in the country regardless of their resident registration.

Members of the legislature claimed that the new voting procedure would increase participation in elections and thus their legitimacy because people could select the most convenient day and location to vote. The chairwoman of the Russian Central Election Commission stated that these innovations were needed to ensure safe voting for Russians during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By stipulating that those who turn 18 years of age on the last day of the three-day voting period are allowed to participate in elections, the new law increases the pool of voters. At the same time, however, the law limits the pool of potential candidates because it allows people to run for office only if they have reached the required minimum age by the first day of voting (i.e., they cannot be on the ballot if they reach the minimum age on the second or third day of voting). (Art. 1.1.) Candidates are now allowed to withdraw from the ballot as late as one day before voting begins (art. 1.8), which enables people such as popular public figures to campaign and boost a party’s popularity and then be replaced on the ballot at the last minute by party loyalists who would be obedient to party leadership.

To expedite the adoption of this law by the State Duma (lower chamber of the Russian legislature), the law was not introduced as a new legislative proposal, but its provisions were added to a bill submitted in 2012 by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The 2012 bill provided for the right of political parties to recall and replace their representatives in election commissions at different levels. The original bill was discussed in a first reading in 2012 but then left without any resolution. By adding the amending provisions to the 2012 bill, the State Duma could immediately consider them in the bill’s second reading and vote to enact them, along with the original bill’s provisions allowing parties to recall their election commission members. Although the new law prohibits changes in commission membership during election campaigns, six months before a campaign, and within one year before and after a commission’s formation (art. 1.4), the Russian voters’ rights protection movement, Golos (Voice), states that, out of fear of being recalled if their decisions do not please party leadership, election commissioners will be forced to defend party interests over the interests of voters. According to Golos, this may also lead to stronger manipulation of the commissions through the pressuring of party leadership by federal, regional, or local administrations.

Russian independent journalists believe that these amendments open the floodgates to fraud and falsification of election results because, at night, ballots cast during the first and second day of voting will remain uncontrolled and at the full disposal of local administrators, who could unseal and reseal ballot boxes at will.

Elections of select State Duma members, governors, and regional and local representational bodies scheduled for September 11–13, 2020, in 41 of the 83 Russian constituent components will be conducted under the new rules.