MOSCOW – In one surveillance video, a hand appears from behind a Russian flag to stuff ballots into a box. In another, a woman is seen removing ballot papers from under her clothes and, with the help of another woman, puts them into the box amid sounds of giggling.
And then there's the mop being raised by someone to cover a camera in a room where workers were reviewing documents after the polling place in southern Russia had closed.
A clean election?
Russian authorities maintained that there were fewer violations in the three days of voting for a new parliament than the last election in 2016, but multiple videos and photos of incidents of ballot fraud have emerged since Friday.
Critics argued that without the ballot manipulation, the Kremlin-backed United Russia party couldn't have won enough votes to hold its supermajority in the parliament, which is particularly important for the next balloting in 2024. That's when President Vladimir Putin’s current term expires, and he is either expected to seek reelection or choose some other strategy to stay in power. In any case, a State Duma that the Kremlin can control would be key.
Over the weekend, election monitors and opposition activists shared photos of thick, folded piles of ballots in transparent ballot boxes that obviously were put in in one piece. Videos from polling surveillance cameras at polling stations showed people trying to shove multiple ballots into boxes, to various degrees of success. There was also footage from several regions of scuffles and confrontations between poll workers and election monitors trying to expose violations.
In one video published by activists from the liberal Yabloko party, reportedly shot Friday in the Siberian region of Kemerovo, a woman subtly steps in front of a ballot box, blocking it from the view of a camera. But a hand can still be seen reaching to the box from behind a Russian flag next to it. The hand puts ballots in several times and the woman then walks away.
Russia's prominent independent election monitoring group Golos pointed to another video depicting ballot box stuffing in the Bryansk region, which borders Belarus and Ukraine. In the video, a woman takes ballots from under her clothes. Together with another woman, they put them into the box. Giggling can be heard on the video as poll workers at their desks go about their business as if nothing is happening.
In a St. Petersburg precinct, a piece of cardboard appeared in front of a surveillance camera shortly after a man opened a safe with ballots that was supposed to remain sealed, local news outlet Fontanka reported, showing the video. Police were investigating the incident.
The video from the southern region of Stavropol, showed two poll workers handling documents in polling station No. 1085 in the city of Pyatigorsk. Suddenly, a mop is raised to the lens of the surveillance camera, blocking the view of ballot manipulation.
The incident drew the attention of Russia's Central Election Commission, where its head, Ella Pamfilova, fired the polling station chief.
Still, she insisted at a teleconference with Putin on Monday that the number of complaints the commission has received this year was “minimal as ever.” Election officials said more than 25,000 ballots were invalidated — including those from the polling station in Bryansk.
On Saturday, Pamfilova alleged that videos were being fabricated. She showed a video, in which police confronted a group of people in an apartment containing video equipment, ballots and a ballot box. The video showed the group had photos of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny among other papers.
Golos, which has been exposing Russian election problems since 2000, disagreed with Pamfilova's assessment of the scale of violations this year.
“Violations during the vote and the vote count, the three-day voting procedure and the way the vote count went in some regions, during which, in our opinion, results have been significantly distorted, don't allow us to talk about the veracity of the results the system of election commission is demonstrating right now,” the group said in a statement Monday.