2019 Moscow City Duma election. Image by Krassotkin

Undercover: How observers are trained at the Civic Chamber of Moscow

In 2005, the respective federal law introduced the federal Civic Chamber as an institution tasked to support the interaction between citizens and authorities, to protect citizens' rights, freedoms, and interests in the shaping of and implementation of state policies, and to exercise public control over the activities of authorities. Consequently, regional civic chambers have been established in subjects of the Russian Federation, with members appointed by federal or regional governments and by civil society organizations.
Over the years, the role played by civic chambers in the context of election observation has considerably grown in significance. Chambers gained legal right to select and deploy election observers and their work has been endorsed and promoted by the Central Election Commission. At the same time, concerns have been growing that this form of controlled election observation could be used to filter out, mute, and over time observation disable by unaffiliated independent observers and organizations, who tend to be more critical of the electoral process. 1

Below we offer a translation of the experience recounted by a member of the independent Movement for the Defense of Voters' Rights 'Golos', who participated in election observation on behalf of the Civic Chamber of Moscow.

 

The author of this text wished to remain anonymous. We in the 'Golos' Movement know them and trust their experience as an election observer, and do not question the facts they decided to share.

In 2021, in advance of the elections, I signed up to be an observer for the Moscow Civic Chamber (CC). Nothing happened for a while, then an SMS message came with an invitation to the training and a link.

Inside was, well, a mediocre online course in the browser. Probably, it could be clicked through in half an hour, but I read it thoroughly and spent almost three. I found no formal gross errors or illegal requirements, so why not take it.

The test was quite difficult, but it was passed, too.

On some questions I could not agree with the opinion of the creators of the test, but according to them, I clearly had made fewer mistakes than was possible. Or maybe they take all newcomers. Anyway, after 28 questions the system told me 'The test is passed!'

Then I was invited to participate in an offline training at one of the Moscow universities.

Training

I came. A small room, 50 people in attendance. Most without masks.

Two instructors. Someone from the Civic Chamber came in, told everyone to wear masks. Everyone nodded and stayed as they were.

We were told that 15 thousand observers would be deployed in Moscow.

Where would so many of them go? I did not understand. Four for each Precinct Election Commission (PEC), 1.37 for each day? But it is impossible to send more than one at a time.

When I was issued a referral document [for going to the polling station] nobody asked me about the specific days: [observe] on as many as you can, that's how much you would work. All three days at our polling station I was alone from the CC.

Let me remind you, the lists of observers and the breakdown of observer presence by day has to be organized in advance.

Do 'chambermen' go to observe (as election commission members with consultative vote – REM) from some political party? 2

The instructors did not know how many PECs there were in Moscow: they said that there would be only 10% of the polling stations without the KOIBs (electronic ballot counting machines – REM) at most. In fact, there are 3,626 PECs in Moscow, of which 1,647 are without KOIBs, or 45.4%, and these figures had been known in advance.

Leading instructor stated:

  • Commission members with consultative voting rights can only be present in PECs, there are no such members in higher level commissions.
  • Commission members with consultative voting rights cannot touch the documents of the commission.
  • Passport data in the voter lists would be taken from Gosuslugi3.
  • Observers have no right to submit complaints and appeals to the commission.

Neither of these statements is accurate.

The instructors' position was as follows: if we detect a violation, we could only approach the PEC Chair and leave the message in the group chat, and then we would be told how to proceed.

All training was built strictly around the fact that one would have a KOIB4, which would do everything by itself.

No manual counting [of ballots], no safe-packets, strictly everything [goes] into the electronic ballot box.

The 'chambermen' were not interested in the preliminary data of the KOIB5, only in seeing the zeros on the scoreboard on Friday morning and the final protocol on Sunday evening. That's it.

It is clear that all this must have led to the fact that an observer would come to the polling station, where something incomprehensible to them was happening, they would be confused and try not to do anything, so as not to disturb the shaky equilibrium. There is no question of any oversight over the procedures.

At the same time, the training was not absolutely awful: we, students, were divided into some teams of 6-10 people, and teams in the form of a competition related information (that came from somewhere unknown) about who could become an observer (non-citizens of the Russian Federation, for example cannot). At our table there was an already experienced observer, and he was telling everything, and I kept silent. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for Golos to adopt elements of this competitive training format for itself.

We sat in the training for more than four hours, the instructors wanted to finish quickly. The final test was a mere formality, and we passed it together as a group.

I don't think this was a training at all – just another Coronavirus spreading event, so that the observers could say they were [educated] somewhere, and the organizers wrote off the budget.

A couple of days later I got a referral [to the polling station].

They left me alone until the beginning of the voting, only sending a request to participate in the mobile app testing three days in advance.

Elections

At the PEC, I really surprised 'my' commission members: they didn't expect a CC observer to truly 'observe' anything.

I couldn't sit idly by staring at the wall, so I checked that the voter lists were stitched and sealed, made sure that the electronic and absentee voters were crossed out, and that the homebound voters were put in the books before the commission left with the mobile ballot box. None of this would have happened at the precinct had I not been there.

The Deputy Chair tried to attack me with the 'who are you, we have been working this way for ten years,' but the Chair realized in time that I was not their enemy, and if they fulfilled all the mandatory things, then it would protect her from the attacks of the candidates' observers on Sunday.

And so it turned out.

On Sunday afternoon I made friends with the 'opposition' observers, but the commissioners were already so tired that they did not draw any conclusions from this.

Before the ballot counting, we discussed with the Chair in what order the count would be performed –she wanted to cut the procedures down and save time. We agreed that the unused ballots would be counted simultaneously, but the rest would be done in order.

The commission took a long time to count the voters on the lists, but from what I was able to check, it seems that they were counting accurately. They were not hiding anything or making a scandal, they were just very tired.

Turning in PEC result protocols to the Territorial Election Commission

Like at many other polling stations in Moscow, the first visit to the Territorial Election Commission (TEC) ended with a complete fiasco: the TEC Chair saw that we had the same number of voters in the federal and single member districts, and sent us back to the PEC to recount the voter lists. This was correct, because de facto the absentee voters assigned to us voted on the party list, and as a rule they were not supposed to receive ballots for the single-mandate district.

After correcting the single-mandate protocol for the number of 'disputed' voters, the protocols were re-signed and accepted by the TEC. I'm sure a thorough count would have revealed further discrepancies in the number of voters, but everyone was tired in the middle of the night, and I really don't think such discrepancy would have made any difference.

Our electronic ballot box counted the distribution of votes by candidate and party lists: there were about 1% invalid ballots, so I think that must have been OK.

Instead of a conclusion

In summary, I can say that the training and educational materials of the Moscow Civic Chamber are absolutely useless. The 'chambermen' were not equipped with anything that could really help solve the issues arising at the polling stations. I personally consider the role of 'observers' sent from the Civic Chamber to be exclusively to imitate election observation.

The Civic Chamber observers I have seen in the past were purely for technical 'work': hanging out in the corner, handing out wristbands, and making up the minimum required number of absentee voters.

This year, I saw with my own eyes how it was set up and where they came from. And I can definitely say: this [situation] does not result from isolated cases of poorly trained individuals, but from a system that purposefully fabricates 'fake' observers, who can neither help the commission with advice, nor oversee the correctness of the procedures.

Without real observers, our PEC knew nothing about the lawfulness and would have made a mess of things: they would have let anybody vote, they would have drawn arbitrary figures in the final protocol.

We didn't hear from the Civic Chamber for a long time after the voting. I was beginning to think that I had been 'found out' and 'cleared out'.

Finally, in early October, about two weeks after the voting, they called and asked me to urgently bring them the copy of a final PEC protocol. I did.

Another couple of weeks – and there were no objections or payments from the Civic Chamber. Little more than a month after the 19th of September they sent me 15 thousand rubles for serving during the three voting days. I heard about similar payments from other 'observers'.

 

References:

1 For more details on the conditions of citizen election observation in Russia see this publication.

2 Signing up as a commission member with reduced rights (i.e., with a consultative vote) is a mechanism frequently used by citizen observers in Russia to circumvent legal restrictions on domestic election observation.

3 An online state services portal.

4 An electronic ballot processing system (also referred to as an 'electronic ballot box') – a KOIB – is special optical scan-based voting machine used on some polling stations in Russia.

5 An important step in ensuring the accuracy of electronic vote count performed by the equipment.

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Alexei Navalny. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

The Russian authorities are expected to orchestrate a result in the upcoming State Duma elections that will give United Russia a clear majority of seats. This does not mean, however, that the manipulation of the electoral process by the authorities is complete. In a limited number of competitive districts, true opposition candidates including candidates who are associated with Aleksei Navalny have a real chance of winning if they are allowed to run. In recent weeks, steps have been taken to block these 'undesirable' candidates from participating.

Central Election Commission (CEC) of Russian Federation during April 21, 2021, meeting. Photo by: CEC.
#Commentary

On March 19, 2021, the new composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC) of the Russian Federation was revealed. Out of 15 members, eight new people joined the CEC. In particular, the new Commission has been 'reinforced' by bureaucrats from the Presidential Administration, the State Duma, and the Civic Chamber (a consultative civil society institution closely linked to the government).