University of Chicago

Deliberately Missing the Point: How Russia’s Electoral Institutions Aid in Vote Manipulation, by Matthew Sparks

On paper, at least, Russia has all of the necessary institutions of a functioning liberal democracy, with regular elections and even bodies specifically devoted to overseeing the election process. Certainly, there have been some warning signs, especially in the blatant executive aggrandizement that was the 2008 amendments to the Constitution of Russia, which extended presidential terms and created a loophole allowing Putin to serve as many non-consecutive terms as he pleased. However, Russia’s electoral process has become rather well-established societally, and opposition parties, generally speaking, are allowed to exist and even hold significant representation in parliament. Yet, in spite of all these trappings of liberalism, Russia is most certainly not a liberal country, and indeed functions far more like a petty dictatorship, with elections being fairly predictable affairs and minor parties consistently being co-opted by the political establishment (in the form of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party). The reason for this is ultimately the fact that the anti-democratic interference with elections occurs not in the form of ballot-box-stuffing or outright voter fraud, but at the bureaucratic and legal level, on which opposition movements are carefully divided or barred from running so as to render the Russian political field such that little actual voter fraud is needed to keep Putin in power. This situation is one that ultimately fits Ozan Varol’s ideas of stealth authoritarianism, in that it uses things that could in many cases be construed as standard, liberal regulations on the democratic process, and ultimately uses them to a highly undemocratic, autocratic end.

In theory, the Russian election process is one that includes significant institutional oversight and allows for the monitoring of irregularities. Elections in the Russian Federation are overseen by a fifteen-member Central Election Commission, with the President, as well as the two chambers of parliament, being able to appoint five members each. Such processes are usually also overseen by a variety of international organizations including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Fears of poll tampering, too, have been allayed somewhat in recent years. Starting in 2012, each polling place all across Russia has been monitored by a host of webcams publicly viewable online in real-time on election day. And while this arrangement has turned up footage of some irregularities, by and large the physical process of voting seems to be relatively legitimate, with no obvious, large-scale voter fraud (outside of a few locations.) Generally speaking, Russian elections do not contain the sort of absurd 98-percent victory margins one would see in a petty dictatorship.

However, these various would-be strictures rather deliberately fail to address the real way in which the Russian electoral system is manipulated: the bureaucracy. This is, by and large, not an example of naked autocracy upheld by raw violence, as is seen in some states — instead, this takes a more insidious form and heavily utilizes the bureaucratic instrument, coupled with the aegis of “law and order,” as a means of suppressing effective opposition to the government of Vladimir Putin. A principal example of this is the utterly byzantine process required for the registration of presidential candidates in Russia: a petition bearing no fewer than two million signatures must be submitted to the Central Election Commission. If more than five percent of these signatures are determined to be “invalid,” the application to run for president is summarily denied. The fundamental idea of having candidates register in order to compete in elections, and even requiring such registrations have to be backed by signatures in order to prevent an excess of frivolous entries, is one that is not inherently undemocratic. Indeed, this is a structre that, under Varol’s definition, would indeed be a “legal mechanism…with favorable democratic credentials” being used “for anti-democratic ends.” In Russia’s case, this is a potent form of what Varol describes as “electoral barriers to entry,” as this “verification” process provides an ample opportunity to disqualify candidates based off of their lack of “valid” signatures. Indeed, this is a fairly common way to exclude candidates the Kremlin does not want in the running. In the 2012 election cycle, for example, moderate opposition candidates Grigory Yavlinsky and Dmitry Mezentsev were both denied permission to run based off of a significant portion of their petition signatures either being “fraudulent” or “of insufficient quality.” While Varol focuses more on systems which require certain minimum vote counts in order to be represented in Parliament, the system found in Russia is arguably not particularly different, as, like a minimum vote percentage system, the fundamental concept of making candidates register is not an autocratic one. However, the manipulation of this exact standard and the way it is enforced is a powerful mechanism to ensure authoritarian oversight and control of the outcomes of ostensibly democratic elections.

A similarly convenient means of denying candidacy exists within the judicial system, in the form of a provision of Russian federal law that bars individuals with felony convictions from running for public office. Unlike the previous example, this is not an especially novel concept as viewed from the perspective of Varol’s work, as he explicitly addresses this very concept in his discussion of how non-political charges are frequent tools of electoral manipulation in authoritarian pseudo-democracies. This turns the judiciary into a powerful political tool – if an individual can be successfully convicted on some charge, they can be politically silenced and prevented from running. It was precisely this method that was used to bar anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny was barred from running for president in 2018. In so doing, the Russian government cited an embezzlement conviction which was, according to many watchdog groups, very likely politically motivated and deliberately brought against Navalny.

Yet on the national level, this is a tool that goes beyond mere electoral politics and becomes a means of controlling information and access to the public, due to the nature of Russia’s media. Russian state-owned or state-connected TV stations (which comprise all but one of Russia’s 24-hour news channels), for instance, practically never cover the exposés or reports on United Russia put out by opposition activists and watchdog groups. However, since the Russian electoral system traditionally features televised debates between candidates, and, as such, gives a candidate a national platform from which to level criticism at the Putin regime. In all honesty, this sort of behavior can perhaps be viewed not so much as being motivated by genuine fear of an opposition candidate victory – if this were the case, then why would Putin allow opposition candidates to run at all? Rather, it could instead be seen as being motivated by the fact that allowing a true opposition candidate to run for national office would grant them a speaking platform that those in power would likely deem unacceptable.

While on a purely structural level the Russian electoral system is, barring a few bureaucratic requirements, more or less what one might expect from a western-style liberal, constitutional democracy, these structures in fact operate in a highly anti-democratic manner and are used by political elites and regime officials as a means of screening out unwanted candidates. Ozan Varol’s paper on “stealth authoritarianism” characterizes this system extremely well, and particularly with respect to the mechanisms used as barriers to competition in elections. However, while the first of the two aforementioned means of barring candidates from elections is used in a manner more or less consistent with Varol’s analysis, the second seems to adopt a more novel role and ultimately serves a more complex function within the strong-state control of the Russian electoral system.

Photo, Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters.

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