The rough guide to ballot rigging / Russia Profile

There has been a lot of talk about alleged vote fraud in Russia, after both December’s parliamentary polls and March 4 presidential elections, at which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin secured a third stint in the Kremlin. But how exactly are ballots rigged?

First off, there is the time-tested, if slightly unimaginative, method of ballot box stuffing. Activists at the December 4 elections alleged boxes arrived at polling stations already partially filled with votes for Putin’s United Russia party.

Secondly, the numbers can simply be rejigged to fit whoever is doing the rigging once the polling stations close. That’s something election officials seemed to have particularly excelled at in both polls, if widespread reports are to be believed. The newly created Voters’ League movement had arranged for parallel vote counting to take place during last Sunday’s election in a bid to put a stop to this unsavory - and alleged - practice, and will reveal the results on March 7.

Moving on in our short lesson on how to carry off electoral fraud, there is multiple voting, which involves the same people being trucked to dozens of polling sites so they can vote over and over and over again in a surreal, Escher-like violation of the laws of time and space. More prosaically, this also sees money changing hands. Correspondents for a number of Russian media outlets and political activists went undercover at December’s polls to expose such trickery. Alleged, of course.

There is also proxy voting, which sees people - allegedly, again - agreeing to sell their votes so that someone else can vote for them. There were lots of reports about such skullduggery in the run-up to the December elections as well. The reported price of a vote for United Russia varied between 500 rubles ($17) in the Volga city of Togliatti and 2,500 rubles in Moscow.

Another opportunity for the lazier - or simply the busy - type of electoral cheat is early voting and absentee ballots, which means election officials can simply go around the corner and fill out the ballots themselves. Footage was posted on YouTube in December of an official apparently doing just this.

Matvei Petukhov, a spokesman for the independent monitoring group "Grazhdanin Nablyudatel" ("Citizen Monitor"), said absentee ballots were the most common method of fraud at the presidential vote.

Russia’s Central Election Commission did not return a request for comment.

State employees have frequently complained of coercion to vote for the “right” party. Hundreds of public sector workers, including schoolteachers and doctors, have said that they were told to vote for United Russia at December’s elections or risk losing their jobs. The Novaya Gazeta opposition newspaper had been urging state employees to report such alleged nastiness ahead of the March 4 vote.

One particularly inventive method of vote fraud - albeit slightly reminiscent of children’s comic book pranks - was the alleged use of pens filled with invisible ink at booths at several Moscow polling stations.

And then there is media control. Ahead of the December vote, opposition parties complained of restricted access to television channels, while United Russia was accused of abusing its authority by ensuring plenty of airtime for itself.

There was some balance this time round, though, and campaign commercials for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and populist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, two of Vladimir Putin’s challengers at the polls, were regularly broadcast on state TV channels ahead of last Sunday’s elections.