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Democracy from afar: Observing the Russian elections from Montreal

This piece critiques the Russian Duma’s election law the recent constitutional reform imposing harsher restrictions for observers and members of the electoral commission. Recent Russian constitutional reforms impose unnecessary and illegal restrictions on participating in public affairs. With practices like gerrymandering, Russia offset the votes of its citizens living overseas. The legal reforms, gerrymandering practices, and the election process itself serve to perpetuate the status quo while neglecting people’s rights.

Voting of Russian citizens living abroad is an essential part of the electoral process since citizens living abroad retain all civil rights, including the right to vote and to participate in the management of state affairs. The elections to the State Duma, the parliament of the Russian Federation, which was held within Russia from September 17 to 19, 2021, attracted significant media attention, both domestically and abroad.

The campaign shows major drawbacks in the democratic election process in Russia. First, the recent constitutional reform and Russian election law imposing harsher restrictions for observers and members of the electoral commissions for those who live abroad. That means illegitimate and unnecessary restrictions on the right of Russian citizens to participate in public affairs. On top of that, Russian authorities are using gerrymandering to balance voters outside the country as a tool to perpetuate the status quo in the Russian political system. Also, the Constitutional reforms restrict non-governmental organizations (Golos) and Russian citizens with double nationality or residencies abroad in their voting rights.

The State Duma of the Russian Federation is one of the chambers of the Federal Assembly, the Parliament of Russia. According to the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation, 1,903,406 voters live abroad[i]. At the same time, in Montreal, according to the final minutes of the precinct election commission, a total of 276 persons voted. Unfortunately, it is impossible to count the total number of eligible voters on each voting station situated abroad because there is no fixed voter list.

Voting in the elections to the State Duma is carried out according to a mixed system. Half of the deputies (225 people) are elected in a single federal district, according to party lists. The other half are elected in single-ballot constituencies distributed throughout the country. Citizens voting abroad are attached to one of these districts, depending on the country of residence. Thus, citizens living in Canada were assigned to a single-mandate constituency belonging to the Ivanovo region of Russia, located around 300 km southwest of Moscow. In practice, this means that the final deputy in a single-mandate constituency is elected considering the results of elections in foreign polling stations.

We can assume a trend according to which, in the absence of election campaigning typical for Russia and daily political propaganda, the voter's choice living in more developed and democratic countries will differ from the choice in non-democratic countries and in Russia itself. In other words, the more democratic the host country of Russian citizens is the fewer votes in it are for the ruling United Russia party, which represents the interests of the current president of Russia.

This trend is even more obvious given the results of the so-called "Smart Voting" - a project led by Alexei Navalny, leader of the Russian opposition. The point of the project is to encourage opposition supporters to vote for the most highly rated opponent of the ruling party candidate to prevent the ‘United Russia’ to gain the constitutional majority (two-thirds plus one vote from the total number of 450 deputies). In most of the countries in which observers from the "Vote Abroad" project operated, including Canada, these alternative candidates won the elections. The Vote Abroad is a project of the non-governmental organization ‘Golos’ [the Vote], which unites active electoral observers on Russian elections. Although these projects are unrelated, Smart Voting and Vote Abroad evidence that people living abroad in democratic countries are more prone to vote for the opposition.

However, the regions representing single-mandate districts are distributed in a way that the choice of voters in one country is offset by the choice of voters in another. For example, along with Canada, Turkmenistan belonged to the same constituency. This phenomenon can be termed "gerrymandering". According to S. Bickerstaff, a gerrymander is a manipulation of electoral districts such that an incumbent or a political party (usually the dominant one) attempts to use the reallocation of seats or redrawing of electoral boundaries, or the failure to do district so, for their advantage. Essentially a gerrymander occurs when self-interest substitutes the public's interest[ii].

Election commissions for organizing and conducting voting of Russian citizens living abroad are formed in diplomatic missions and consular offices of the Russian Federation directly before the elections; they operate two months before the elections and 10 days after. The commission is formed directly by the ambassador and not by a higher election commission. Offshore the number of civil servants in those commissions is up to 100% and there is no limit to the number of members of the commission. Meanwhile, the standard number of commission members within Russia is 12 people. It should be noted that the final minutes of the electoral commission containing election results must be signed by at least half of the number of voting members of the commission.

Under Russian legislation, there are different categories of election observers. An observer differs from a member of an electoral commission with an advisory vote in multiple issues. Russian constitutional reforms impede citizens with residence permits or citizenship of a foreign state to be an observer.

Members of commissions of both a casting vote and an advisory vote (qualified electoral observers) should not have either second citizenship or a residence permit in a foreign state. These requirements were tightened with last year’s adoption of constitutional amendments aimed at restricting the rights of citizens who have citizenship in a foreign state. However, in my opinion, such a limitation is unnecessary. According to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to participate in managing state affairs both directly and through their representatives. The restriction of this right in any capacity on the grounds not only of having foreign citizenship but also of permanent residence outside Russia undoubtedly violates their rights. There are situations, and Canada is no exception, that foreign citizenship is obtained by a person upon his birth in the country. Thus, this person will be deprived of the opportunity to participate in the management of state affairs, including through qualified election observation.

In Russia, a three-day vote is held. Abroad, voting usually lasts one day. Of the four polling stations formed in Canada, namely Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, only in Vancouver did voting take three days. Three-day voting is a novelty in the electoral legislation of Russia. The first time this innovation was carried out was not at the elections but the so-called "all-Russian vote on amendments to the Constitution". This vote was not regulated by either the electoral law, since it was not an election, nor was it a federal constitutional law on a referendum in the Russian Federation.

As one of the negative consequences of this election campaign, one can also highlight the fact that the organization "Golos" [the Vote], as well as its activists in Russia, who carried out the "Vote Abroad" project, were recognized as foreign agents under the legislation of the Russian Federation. This will mean a further limitation of the possibilities for the work of this organization.

https://votesmart.appspot.com/ - Smart voting project by A. Navalny (in Russian)

https://voteabroad.today/ ‘Vote Abroad’ project (in Russian)

[i] Information on the number of voters registered in the Russian Federation and outside the territory of the Russian Federation, participants in the referendum of the Russian Federation as of January 1, 2020. // Official site of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation. URL: http://www.cikrf.ru/izbiratel/quantity/20200101.php (accessed October 6, 2021)

[ii] Bickerstaff S. (2020) The Many Disguises of Gerrymandering. In: Election Systems and Gerrymandering Worldwide. Studies in Choice and Welfare. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-30837-7_2

About the writer

Andrey ShcherbovichDr. Andrey Shcherbovich graduated from the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Faculty of Law (Department of International Law), Moscow, Russia, in 2008. Between 2011 and 2020 Dr. Shcherbovich was a lecturer, then an associate professor in the Department of the Constitutional and Administrative Law, at the Law Faculty of the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.

In September 2013, he completed his Ph.D. degree with a thesis entitled “Constitutional Guarantees of the freedom of speech and right to access the information on the Internet”. In 2019, he was a CyberBRICS research fellow and visiting professor at FGV, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Currently, he is an O’Brien Fellow in Residence at the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Pluralism, and a 2021-2022 IIE-SRF Scholar.

Dr. Shcherbovich’s professional interests are related to Russian public law (constitutional and human rights law) with special regard to international principles of Internet Governance. Among others, he teaches a special course on the human rights of Internet users.

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