Bookkeeping in Democracy

Mikhailov V.V.


Reflecting on Arkadii E. Lyubarev's "Entertaining Election Statistics", Moscow, Golos Consulting, 2021.

States must ensure that votes are counted fairly.

(Declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections, 1994)

Who is the target audience of this book [5]? If you are looking for answers to questions like: what place can and should mathematical methods take in the work of election commissions, how many direct gubernatorial elections Russia had before 2005, how to apply Sergei Shpilkin's method to official election results in order to measure the volume of anomalous votes, what is the difference between election fraud committed during different stages of election process, what happened during the notorious 2018 gubernatorial election in Primorsky Krai and many others – this book is for you. The book combines a variety of approaches to working with election-related databases and explains the meaning of the results.

The subject that the author is coveting in this book is much broader than its title would suggest. In the title, the author very skillfully concealed the grave state of elections in Russia and, in my opinion, did the right thing. "Serious Election Statistics" would have made a more fitting title for this extensive review. I assume this is how anyone who is well-versed in the matter will perceive this work.

Along with observer reports, election statistics is one of the most important sources of our knowledge about election quality. Readers for books on this subject are quite few. Small print runs are not the only limitation–there are also relative difficulty and lack of "thrill" in this approach to elections. Nevertheless, Russian voters in general seem to have a pretty good idea of the state of election management and methods in this country. The level of trust in election process is low. Nine out of twenty Russians in a survey conducted by Levada Center after the September 2021 elections do not think the elections are fair, and five out of those nine say they are definitely unfair. Among those who did not vote, the distrust was even higher: eleven out of twenty thought the election was not fair, and six of those thought it was definitely unfair. One would assume that the sources of this knowledge about the state of elections are personal experience, social circles, the official media and, to a large extent, those works on election statistics transmitted by journalists and Internet users [4].

Quite interesting is the opinion of government-recognized political scientists, who provide the government with knowledge about society and, at the same time, enjoy a fairly high level of trust in society. We found out their opinions from a survey conducted by Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) following the 2018 elections. [12: 404-409].

Dmitry Badovsky believes that "we did not have any serious violations or fraud". This opinion is also shared by Gleb Kuznetsov ("presidential election was clean"), Dmitry Gusev (Putin "won an absolutely clean victory") and Mikhail Slesarenko ("talks about fraud are absolutely irrelevant regarding this presidential election").

Boris Makarenko and Yevgeny Minchenko believe that recently there has been a positive trend and the number of election fraud cases have dropped significantly. Andrei Zverev agrees: "Cases of fraud and violations have decreased over the past few years, … the scale of existing violations is certainly not so large as to affect the results." Igor Mintusov acknowledges that "brazen fraud" did take place in 2011–2012, but "there [were] very few cases of fraud during vote tallying" in 2018. He also mentions that the Primorye gubernatorial election in September 2018 demonstrated how fragile everything is, and how "fraud can come back in an instant, as soon as a corresponding political decision will appear."

Konstantin Kalachyov and Abbas Gallyamov turned out to be more skeptical. Konstantin Kalachyov admits: "There are regions where elections are sterile of fraud, and there are regions where you don't have to go to the polls, the result will be known in advance... But on the whole, the situation [in 2018] has improved." According to Abbas Gallyamov, the 2000s saw elections in many regions "rigged shamelessly and openly." After Bolotnaya Square protests, the idea that there are no fair elections in Russia whatsoever has emerged as the dominant one. However, Gallyamov believes that in 2018, the scale of violations was much smaller.

As it happens, the official expert community does not have a consensus on the absence or presence of election fraud. One can notice that they mostly avoid giving quantitative assessments. Perhaps the most common idea among political scientists is the understanding that fraud was much more widespread before 2018, but all regional managers who were guilty of violations were successfully curbed in the last presidential election. One gets the impression that these experts themselves rely on the results provided by election statisticians, but are reluctant to mention it.

Different understanding of state of election is not the only surprising thing — they seem to effectively accept fraud as something normal, as a necessary feature of vote tallying.

Under these conditions, Arkadii Lyubarev's book gives the reader the opportunity to make their own assessment of the situation and decide who is giving the correct assessment: the experts who believe that the 2018 election was free of violations, or those who are less optimistic about the scale of fraud. Or can it be that the truth lies with the 45% of citizens who believe elections in Russia cannot be called fair?

In the first democratic elections held in 1989 in the USSR, and then in Russia, voters were given ballots with several items on the list. Voters had the opportunity to find out the results at mid-level and main election commissions—sooner or later, depending on the region. But many regions, republics and districts were still governed by party workers who used old methods to manage the voting process and count ballots and did not hesitate to "tweak" the results in their favor. They still controlled election commissions, and it was impossible for non-members to check the credibility of vote tallying. Statistical analysis of these results showed that tweaking was systematic and centralized. District administrations served as primary control centers in this case. There appeared opportunities to analyze these actions and to assess the extent of interference in the vote count.

As it happens, this type of analytical work in post-Soviet Russia is carried out by enthusiasts. The first and more famous enthusiasts were Aleksandr Sobyanin, Vladislav Sukhovolsky, Mikhail Myagkov [11]. Arkadii Lyubarev, the author of this book, and his long-time co-author Andrei Buzin began working on elections around the same time. In 2008, there was a visible shift in the election statistics of Russian elections. It was the time when famous works by Sergei Shpilkin [9; 10] came out, and Andrei Buzin and Arkadii Lyubarev published their book called "Crime Without Punishment" that had a chapted devoted to this subject of electoral research [1: 195-256]. These works breathed new life into what Aleksandr Sobyanin started before.

The number of researchers began to grow, and new mathematical methods appeared. The speed of processing large amounts of data obtained in the post-election vote count increased, allowing researchers to get the first estimates of election credibility as early as in a day. All of this happened against the backdrop of the government changing electoral laws and applying new tactics of using administrative resource to get the desired result. One of such organizational changes happened in 2012, when Vladimir Putin suggested to equip all polling stations with video cameras, which made it possible to observe the voting process online. In the hands of observers, video recordings from these cameras became a new tool for assessing election quality.

The number of works on election statistics in Russia is increasing every year. Regular use of administrative resource and fraud in elections unfortunately provides election statisticians with ample data for refining their existing skills and developing new research methods.

Electoral regulations saw significant changes before the 2020 Russian constitutional referendum and the 2021 State Duma election. The regular one-day vote was replaced by a seven-day vote in 2020 and a three-day vote in 2021. Remote e-voting was made available in certain regions as an extra option. It became clear that the era of traditional one-day paper ballot voting was coming to an end.

Now is the time to summarize the interim results and group together authors working in one direction, to provide observers, as well as aspiring and experienced researchers with a guidebook on Russian election statistics. "Entertaining Election Statistics" successfully does all that. Arkadii Lyubarev is not just a renowned expert in electoral statistics. He has profound knowledge of electoral legislation, and is the author of multiple legislative proposals, who has deep understanding of electoral procedures and the work performed by election commissions of various levels, including the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation (the CEC). It is no coincidence that it was he who took on the challenging task of assembling a variety of results into one package.

The book is divided into three large overlapping parts. Part one consists of a description of the structure of final protocols and the statistics of the data within these protocols at the regional and Russian levels (Chapters 2 and 4). The author does not limit himself to listing official data, also citing the most typical mistakes that sometimes find their way to the final regional or CEC tables. The detailed description of such a rare occurrence as the ballot being taken outside the voting premises is an example of how meticulous this work is. The role of invalid ballots and ballots being taken away from the voting premises as forms protest is part of public discussion before every federal election. Now anyone concerned can learn about the nature and extent of this type of expression of voter's will.

Part two presents the basic statistical analysis methods used in election studies. Some of them date back to the 1990s, while others are relatively recent. Each method is supplied with a historical background, a description of applicability conditions, notes on the authors who contributed to its development, an explanation of its principles, and examples of specific assessments of electoral characteristics. Some methods can be effectively used for multiple types of elections. These methods include correlation analysis, cluster analysis, analysis of turnout distributions, and peak analysis for the turnout and voting distribution curves. Other methods can be applied in a small number of cases. These include, for example, the method for identifying calculated and fabricated results (these do exist!), the search for cases of homogeneous voting (when certain results in precinct election commission protocols fall within a very narrow range).

Some methods can be used for political analysis of elections, and as an example, the author uses Andrei Akhremenko and Yuri Korgunyuk's works on electoral cleavages, where both researchers use factor analysis. Other methods are useful for detecting cases where deviations point to possible cases of fraud.

Part three of the book describes methods for detecting anomalies and fraud as well as the application results. As can be seen from the table of contents, this part is quite small and takes up 26 pages of section 3.6. However, a reading shows that such sections of Chapter 4 as "Early Voting" and parts of "Absentee Voting" can also be added to this part. The sections "Monolithic Voting" and "Homogeneity of Vote Returns" deal exclusively with fraud, which in these cases is easily detected if certain election commissions are treated as parts of statistical blocks. This makes them extremely reader-friendly. In "Field Voting," extensive statistics point to instances of "administrative zeal" within individual districts when it comes to ensuring high elderly voter turnout.

Chapter Five, which deals with statistics from eight different federal subjects, is full of administrative resource use cases during elections and fraud cases in different districts, in different years. Sverdlovsk Oblast is the "cleanest" federal subject in this case. In Moscow, bouts of active fraud use alternated with quieter years. Six other federal subjects are known for extensive fraud and active use of administrative resource, but there are highlights still: Saratov Oblast, Kemerovo Oblast and the Republic of Dagestan. We may deduce that about half of the book deals with electoral anomalies and fraud cases committed in Russia over a long time period that started in mid-1990s.

Whenever results obtained by different authors using similar methods are discussed, it usually means there's a point of origin for questions that may serve as openers for new discussions. Thanks to its precise and comprehensive nature, the book abounds in such points: for example, the section on methods based on turnout rate distribution.

In addition to methods for analyzing turnout, voting, and their interdependencies, the book goes into detail about data on invalid ballots and "none of the above" (NOTA) votes. It also shows substantial geographical differences and differences between villages and towns. There are many interesting examples of how the high level of NOTA voting serves as a sign of protest against a popular candidate being removed. All these examples demonstrate that in the years that NOTA vote was present on ballots (1993–2005), voters used it as leverage against the administrative resource that was often employed at the stage of putting the candidates into ballot. State Duma eliminated this leverage point, citing examples of democracies that do not include NOTA in their ballots. But they also omitted the fact that, unlike Russia, these countries do not remove candidates the government does not approve of from the race, and that the executive power in these countries is limited during the election campaign. The book shows that after NOTA was reinstated in 2015 for municipal elections in a small number of federal subjects, voters returned to using it as a form of protest.

For readers and potential experts on election history, we would like to point out that although the book abounds in data sorted and specified by different electoral periods, regions and polling stations, there is still plenty of room for research, both recent and retrospective, dating back 10-20 years.

We also have to point out that the volume of the book would not allow to cover many published works on Russian elections, including those on election fraud. Here are a few examples that might show that the range of results and methods developed by the expert community goes beyond this book and that, although much has been done in election statistics, there are always topics and data for further research.

Since 2010, there emerged two methods that proved to be effective in assessing the quality of official data. What they do is compare the results in commission protocols with those obtained through alternative methods.

The first method uses video surveillance data from election commissions on election day as sources of information on voter turnout and compliance with the law. While analyzing video recordings, volunteers often found evidence of ballot box stuffing (or even KOIB (optical scan voting system) stuffing) and significant increases in turnout. For example, after reviewing webcam footage from 230 polling stations in 19 federal subjects during the 2018 presidential election, volunteers discovered the actual turnout to be 225 049 voters, while official data indicated 335 342 voters, meaning that the turnout was overstated by a factor of 1.5 [3].

The other method is based on the influence trained observers have on results. The method was developed and implemented by employees of New Economic School and Higher School of Economics. During the 2011 State Duma elections in Moscow, the authors randomly chose 156 polling stations out of over three thousand. To these polling stations, they sent observers whose job was to oversee the voting process on election day and then receive a certified copy of the finalized protocol. This data was then compared to the protocols from the polling stations with no observers. The experiment revealed strong statistical evidence of large-scale (at least 10.8 percent) fraud in favor of United Russia. According to official data, this party won 46.5 percent of the vote. The reviewed result would have been 36 percent [2].

Let us take a look at geography. The book repeatedly notes the difference between the electoral characteristics of the subjects of the federation. Some of them regularly indicate results so abnormal that they deserve special attention. The federal subjects we refer to are Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and the republics in North Caucasus region, which experts already unflatteringly refer to as electoral sultanates. Election fraud sequence in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, which was started by Mintimer Shaimiyev and Murtaza Rakhimov respectively, were continued by their successors with varying degrees of success. There is reason to believe that Republic of Mordovia and some other regions later took after these two by employing dirty election tactics and administrative resource.

Monolithic voting is an example of such tactics. This is what the author calls voting that results in more than 90% votes going to one candidate or party. The author also believes that monolithic voting did not fully emerge until the second half of the 1990s. That is not entirely correct. Starting in 1991, elections in Tatarstan constantly supply numerous examples of this phenomenon at the level of individual PECs and TECs. The 1994 example of the repeat State Duma election in a single-seat constituency No. 24 in Moscow [5: 210] may be complemented by other cases of monolithic voting in the same period [7: 215-230].

Since 1991, a phenomenon that may be called monolithic turnout emerged in Tatarstan and somewhat later in Bashkortostan. It is characterized by the use of administrative resource to no lesser extent than monolithic voting. Between 1991 and 2003, nine rural districts in the republic consistently showed a turnout above 90%, and some of them even exceeded 98% [7: 196].

In 1990s, most of the 2700 Russian TECs with the turnout over 90% were located in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. There were 78 such TECs in the second round of the 1996 presidential election, and 62 of these were in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. In 2000, the number of such TECs stood at a total of 121, with 66 located in the two republics [7: 332]. In the 2000 and 2001 elections, these republics indicated anomalous "turnout-voting" linear regression graphs — anomalous when compared with the graphs of oblasts. At the same time, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan indicated quite unusual proportions of invalid ballots, which was a sign of possible ballot spillover [6].

Examples of "unimaginably high voter participation" that exceeded the "physiological maximum" and reached as high as 98-99%" in rural Bashkiria and Tatarstan allowed Nikolai Petrov to point out that turnout is one of the most frequently falsified indicators [8: 310].

A small number of examples supplementing the content of the book are presented here for the sole purpose of showing the complexity of the problems in Russian election statistics, the variety of fraud and its continued use by the government. It is simply impossible to cover all electoral statistics in Russia and to describe all the manipulations in so small a book. It should be noted that in doing so, the author managed to fit even more data than could be expected.

In recent years, the use of mathematical methods has seen the advent of researchers with no previous expertise of working on elections. Their help will always be in demand due to the sheer volume of work and the need to double-check the results using different methods and authors. In this respect, Arkadii Lyubarev's book will undoubtedly become a valuable guide both to the topics and methods of election statistics and to the peculiarities of elections and fraud in different regions.

Received 10.11.2021.


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