How to actually steal an election

Candidate Boris Vishnevsky, right, ran against two similar-looking men who legally changed their first and last names to match his. He lost the election. (Ivan Petrov/AP)

This past weekend, Russians went to polling places, received ballots, and checked names off for seats in the Duma. Just don’t call it an election. Elections involve predictable rules and unpredictable results. Russian elections are precisely the opposite. 

Putin wants Russia to appear democratic to its citizens and foreign observers, but he has no interest in losing his party’s majority. Americans have heard a lot of trumped-up charges of election fraud this past year, but how do you actually steal an election?

1: Eliminate Rivals

Arguably the second most famous man in Russia, Alexei Navalny, spent the election in a Soviet-era penal colony after surviving an assassination attempt. Still, Putin wasn’t comfortable with just removing his main rival from the picture.

Over the last decade, Putin has systematically dismantled his opposition. He didn’t just detain Navalny. Organizations associated with him were labeled “extremist” and anyone involved could be imprisoned for up to a decade. In all, 163 of 174 candidates who attempted to run as independents were prohibited from participating in the election, and countless others decided not to try given the likely consequences. 

Recently, news organizations and NGOs which operate independently of the regime, and might challenge its assertions, were labeled “Foreign Agents.” Since Putin took power, 28 Russian journalists have been assassinated. Just this year there has been a mass exodus of political dissidents and journalists from Russia. With the media firmly under his control and any possible rivals exiled, imprisoned or dead, no one with a legitimate chance at upending Russian politics appeared on the ballots.

2: Fake a Competition

Once the real opposition has been eliminated, the next step is to find someone – or something – to run against since Putin and his cronies can’t be the only ones on the ballot. The solution is simple: fabricate rival parties, and fill them with loyalists.

Putin’s fake opposition isn’t new, but it is becoming more brazen. Last year, a party called New People launched on a reformist platform. They asserted that “For two decades we lived in a situation of a false choice: either freedom or order” and criticized Putin’s regime for “seeing enemies and traitors in those who have other points of view.” The party may speak like Navalny and campaign like Navalny, but that’s where their similarities end. The party’s true intent is to offer an alternative to the real opposition that may placate some voters during election season only to vote with Putin once elected

Even when actual opposition candidates make it onto the ballot, the tricks don’t end. Boris Vishnevsky, for instance, found himself running against two doppelgangers. They looked like him, had his same beard and hairline, and even shared his first and last name. Both had legally changed their names just before joining the race.

3. Rig the Election

Everything leading up to the election might be carefully orchestrated, but that doesn’t mean Putin is taking any risks at the ballot box.

When election weekend came around, the Russian government bussed 600,000 Ukrainians living in Russian-occupied territories over the border to vote, before returning them to Ukraine. Like something out of a Cold War-era spy film, some Russians were given pens with disappearing ink to cast their ballots, allowing officials to change or nullify a vote with ease. And at work places, Russians were encouraged to use experimental electronic voting “under the watchful eye of your senior comrade.” Unsurprisingly, anomalies with the vote tallies that emerge from electronic voting are widespread.

If everything else weren’t damning enough, an audio recording from Novaya Gazeta revealed that some poll workers were given specific instructions about how to guarantee 42-45% of the vote for Putin’s United Russia party. Unsurprisingly, Radio Free Europe reported on a “really shocking number” of videos showing poll officials stuffing ballot boxes. And, in an effort to make strategic voting more difficult, the government successfully had the opposition’s “Smart Voting” app removed from the Apple and Google stores, YouTube videos and Google Docs blocked, and Telegram chats suspended.

Do Russian elections matter?

To no one’s surprise, Putin’s United Russia kept its supermajority and Putin seems slated for another resounding victory in the 2024 presidential election. With an election this corrupt, it’s difficult to claim that voting has much of a purpose except legitimizing the regime.

Thankfully, it’s not so simple. Opposition candidates run, and the persecution they face can’t be hidden from the public. Russians given pens with disappearing ink know the government doesn’t trust them, and those coerced into voting under the watchful eye of their boss understand that they lack real freedom. Russian elections consistently deliver a strong majority for Putin and United Russia, but they also reflect the fundamental insecurity and fear of the ruling regime. Popular governments don’t rig elections, and strength isn’t the same as stability. The Russian house of cards might seem monumental, but it will collapse under the weight of its own lies.

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Narration: Writing & Policy Associate James Lewis