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Preliminary statement on the course of the civic observation of the all-Russian vote on the amendment of the Constitution

The “Golos” movement conducted an independent observation of the all-Russian vote on the amendment of the Constitution throughout the entire campaign period – from March 2020, including the period of the passing of the normative-legal articles that regulate the conduct of the vote, the initial launching of the processes, their application in relation to the Coronavirus epidemic, the updating of the processes and of course, the days of voting themselves.

The long-term and short-term observations were conducted in 42 regions of the country. 

The all-Russian vote was assessed in accordance with the Russian constitutional and international standards, that in their short form, were formulated in the “Record of the all-Russian vote” – a “notebook” on the observation of the participants’ rights.

These standards were divided into four blocks.

  1. The norms, related to the preparatory stage: the observance of the existing procedural norms upon the announcement of the vote; the reinforcement of its rules on the legal level; the stability of the rules; the observers’ rights’ guarantees; the existence of internal communication between the different parts of the question addressed by the vote; the naming of the vote’s consequences.
  2. The norms, creating the opportunities for real pluralism of opinion in the course of the public discussion on the proposed amendments.
  3. The norms, providing the honesty of the citizens’ vote’s procedures and of the vote counting.
  4. The norms, guaranteeing the opportunities for effective appeals against the vote organising commission’s decisions, and for sanctions in response to violations of the voters’ rights.

The necessity of the observance of these standards, in order to form and express the real free will of the citizens has repeatedly been confirmed by the Russian Constitutional Court. It has also indicated, that the creation of the necessary conditions for their observance – is a prime duty of the state.

In the present moment, it is possible to assess the relationship of this vote with the great majority of the stated criteria. Questions remain only in regards to the fourth block – the opportunities for actual appeals and sanctions against those violating the rights to the free expression of the will.

The main conclusions:

1. Disregard of the law

The conduct of the all-Russian vote on the amendments of the Constitution following the acceptance of these amendments by the majority of the qualifying regional parliaments is dubious from the point of view of article 136 of the Russian Federation’s Constitution. Although, the Russian Constitutional Court has stated that from its point of view, such a vote cannot be considered as the Federal Assembly’s renunciation of its powers and responsibilities (Constitutional Court’s conclusions numbers 1-3 of 16th March 2020), the lack of a legal basis for its conduct is obvious and is admitted by the initiators of the amendments themselves.

In essence, for the initiators of the amendments, the holding of the all-Russian vote, has from the onset, been nothing more than a PR action, the goal of which was not the expression of the citizens’ free will, but the forming of the image of that same will, that is necessary for the authorities.

The consequences of that were both the intended and unintended problems in the normative-legal regulation of the voting processes, the conscious and deliberate lowering of the participants’ rights’ protection levels as compared with the standard package of electoral guarantees. It is exactly because of that that the law on amendments almost does not contain any norms that regulate the conduct of the vote. A big part of these norms are written in a document with a much lower status – the Order of the all-Russian vote on the question of accepting the amendments of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, accepted by the Central Electoral Commission. Thus, the main issue of the provision of citizens’ rights for the free expression of their will, was lowered to the status of a departmental instruction.

Dangerous judicial precedents were created, putting under threat, the design of the law as the complex of normative articles of Russia. The key subjects, participating in the organisation of the vote, have repeatedly gone beyond the boundaries of their powers.

First, the President has delegated tasks to the Russian CEC as well as to the other electoral commissions that are independent from him in accordance with the law. That was done prior to the passing of the law on the amendment, when the President ordered the Russian CEC to commence the preparation for the vote and allocate budgetary means on it.

Second, the Central Electoral Commission also went far beyond its powers as designated by the law; it did so by organising the early vote on 25th to 30th June. Thus, the count of the 58.6 million votes that were received by 1st July, stand on no legal grounds whatsoever. Furthermore, the turnout in the early vote was anomalous – not only because of the number of voters (practically four fifths of the citizens allegedly participating in the vote, did so until 1st July), but also because of the unexplainable unbalance in participation between the regions. Except from that, the CEC had no authority to form the Special Territorial Electoral Commission for the remote electronic vote. That means that all the organisation of the electronic vote that in itself is regulated by the law on the amendment, was conducted by a body that was created illegally.

Third, the Russian CEC used legal articles to introduce illegal complications of the procedure to accredit the media. The request to accredit only those representatives of the media that made agreements with their respective redactor’s offices not sooner than two months prior to the day of the publishing of the order establishing the vote, constitutes a clear limitation of media rights and therefore can only be introduced by federal law.

Fourth, the lawmakers have stated the necessity to pass the order of designating observers at the Civic Chamber that in its legal form has no right of normative establishment of the common rules for an undefined circle of persons.

The arbitrary change of the rules of voting in the course of the vote itself deserve a particular mention. By themselves, the articles regulating the conduct of the vote already contained a mass of unsolvable flaws, however, even these documents have changed, and that occurred at the very moment when citizens had already started to vote. The last and quite consequential amendments of the order of the vote were passed at the session of the Russian CEC on the evening of 23rd June. They changed the working time of the Precinct Electoral Commissions that now, had to work from 8:00 until 20:00 hours, starting on 25th June, while this issue was previously decided in the regions, and many regions established an abridged time. That occurred 30 hours prior to the commencement of the mass early vote in the Russian regions. The decree with the changes was published during the day of 25th June, that is, it contained the requirement to start work at 8:00 hours, effective posteriorly. Thus and with even longer delays, the articles of the Regional Electoral Commissions were passed.

Such instability, not only violated the widely recognised standards of citizens’ expression of the will, but brought additional confusion to the work of the members of the electoral commissions.

2. The inequality in the formulation of the question and the procedural consequences of the vote

The bringing of diversely aimed amendments in a single package and the formulation of the question itself, as presented for the vote, do not allow giving a clear single answer.

That is contrary to the widely recognised international standards of direct expression of the citizens’ will. Opportunities arise, of multiple presentations of the question and of the non-definition of the legal consequences of the decisions passed by way of voting.

Furthermore, the materials of the Russian CEC, and of national and municipal media, contain the electoral approach to the covering of the amendments. A big part of the materials were dedicated to the “social” and “cultural” blocks, that in fact constituted a mere tenth of the full volume of the amendments. The questions of the restructuring of the powers, including the “resetting to zero” of the presidential terms, received almost no attention whatsoever.

We must also note, that regardless of the decisive character of the vote, the law did not stipulate any limitations on the revision of its course. That contradicts the international standards of expression of the will. The results of this vote do not carry legal solidity – they can formally be revised with the help of an ordinary parliamentary procedure of passing amendments.

3. The absence of the necessary conditions for the provision of pluralism of opinion in the public discussion

A key factor, that influenced the impossibility, not only of the expression, but also of the forming of the citizens’ free will, was the absence of pluralism in the public discussion; it could have allowed the various social groups that constitute society, to express their views and interests. The constitutional duty to establish the equality of the rights of both supporters and opponents of the amendments is the responsibility of the Government.

The lack of regulation of the campaigning and of the rules of its funding has prevented the provision of pluralism. The Central Electoral Commission has in fact taken upon itself, the role of pushing the arguments of the supporters of the amendments in violation of the law; the CEC materials were openly following a campaigning goal, substituting by it the function of objective and unbiased informing of the voters. Additionally, the campaigning actively involved governmental and municipal bodies, media under their control as well as public office holders.

In parallel, the opponents of the amendments had their opportunities to conduct campaigning, maximally limited. They were even refused to place paid materials in the media and on billboards; political advertisement in the main Russian social networks is prohibited by the rules of those social networks; the “No” campaign site was blocked by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communication, Information Technology and Mass Media. This was compounded in the conditions of the epidemic, by the limitation of the fundamental political freedoms of the citizens: the freedom to assembly, association and movement within the country. They found themselves in a situation, when their point of view could only be spread among the followers of their social media pages.

All this created substantial and unjustifiable inequality in the covering of the amendments, that cannot even allow to seriously consider the opportunities to express the people’s conscious will.

4. Compulsory voting

The law on the amendment directly prohibits the compelling of citizens to participate in the vote. Nevertheless, in reality, this compelling became commonplace. It is made by employers, public office holders in the government bodies and local authorities, and has affected all the country’s regions and a mass of branches of the society’s economic sectors. In fact, it affects tens of millions of people.

Opportunities for that were created by the Central Electoral Commission itself, by allowing the conduct of practically uncontrolled voting throughout a week. A considerable part of the votes in that period, were collected upon direct voting in companies and establishments – that were de facto controlled by their leaderships. The electoral commissions did not rise in defence of the citizens’ rights and ignored that necessity even in situations when it was evident to all parties. Thus, for example, the electoral commissions in Yekaterinburg were putting notes on the “voting attendance” papers, issued by employers to their employees.

5. Multiple voting, ballot-box stuffing, violation of voting secrecy and other falsifications

Throughout all the days of voting, a large amount of reports arrived regarding incidents of voting without passports, on behalf of other individuals and of ballot box stuffing. Additionally, there was an increasing number of instances of multiple voting, the opportunities for which, were inscribed in the very order of the process conduct.

It has been shown, that upon organising the vote in the near-domestic territory, the voting secrecy was far from being always provided.

Despite that, baseless “secrecy” was unexpectedly applied to the documents of the electoral commissions. In violation of the principles of transparency and collegiality, numerous commissions in the whole country, attempted to limit the access by the members of the very same commissions as well as by observers, to the documents on the conducting of the vote – voters’ lists, articles etc. In many cases, it was accompanied by illegal “release from work”, dismissals and even resorting to physical assaults with infliction of grievous bodily harm. The commissions repeatedly expelled representatives of the media from the precincts after the latters’ closures, thus violating their legal rights.

Such behaviour by the commissions doesn’t come as a surprise, when taking into account the amount of citizens’ reports on incidents when at the time of their voting, signatures were already present next to their surnames, and accounts of the presence of carefully packed ballots inside the ballot boxes.

We will also note separately, that the Russian CEC, who had previously sued sociological services for the publication of exit polls before the closing of the precincts, started publishing the first details on the results of the vote at the moment when the majority of precincts in the country were still hours away from closing.

6. Limitation of citizens’ rights to control the fairness of the voting and of the vote count

As stipulated by the Russian Constitutional Court (Decree number 8-P of 22nd April 2013), the citizens are associated participants of national sovereignty, and thus have the right to control processes, related to the counting of votes and deciding the outcome of elections.

In reality, the citizens’ right to control was deeply violated.

Voting took place in conditions of active opposition to civil observation. That was already done on the institutional level – the sole subject of the observers’ direction were the Civic Chambers that were formed by Government bodies. The Government itself, being the amendments’ initiator, is in fact one of the interested parties. 

In the great majority of cases, the work of the observers from the civic chambers consisted of the profanation of observation. The civic chambers impeded the issue of directions to citizens who had expressed the will to participate in observation, or else appointed them to locations remote from their places of residence.

The representatives of the civic chambers, including the Federal one, actively participated in the campaign to discredit the civil observation. Together with members of the Council for Human Rights at the Office of the President of Russia, members of the CEC and Russian Members of Parliament, they were involved in the spread of libellous information about the “Golos” movement, based on fabricated materials.

We must note, the opposition, with which, the Russian citizens, who wanted to ascertain the honesty of voting and of the vote counting, were met on the “lower” level. The observers and even the commission members were denied the right to consult the commission documents, the issue of article copies; they were not allowed to attend the “near-domestic” vote. There were attempts to limit the observers’ and media representatives’ rights to take photographic and video records, to access commission documents; there were attempts to expel them from precincts. Particular concern was raised by the reports that such actions were taken deliberately, in accordance with directives of the high standing territorial commissions.

As a conclusion, the voting days themselves did not have a significant meaning.

The expression of the people’s free will was impossible from the very beginning because of those rules that were consciously created by the initiators of the amendments and the organisers of the vote.

Furthermore, the level of falsification has also affected the results of the citizens’ vote that in reality does not correspond to the results announced by the Russian CEC – neither in regards to turnout, nor in regards to the numbers that voted for “Yes” or for “No”.

In that sense, this vote really became unprecedented and will be recorded in the country’s history as an example of an attempt on the people’s sovereignty.