Putin's answer to polling fraud: lots of webcams

Russian Prime Minister Putin is trying to head off charges of polling fraud in March presidential elections – and potential protest – by installing 90,000-plus web cameras at polling sites. 

Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Reuters
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting of a government commission on technology and innovation held during his visit to a railway wagon plant in the Leningrad region near St.Petersburg on Monday. The Russian government is installing web cameras at more than 90,000 polling sites in an effort to undermine expected accusations of widespread fraud in the upcoming presidential election.

The Russian government is installing web cameras at more than 90,000 polling sites in an effort to undermine expected accusations of widespread fraud in the upcoming presidential election.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced the initiative after evidence of fraud in last December’s parliamentary elections sparked Russia’s first mass protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. Amateur video footage depicting the alleged fraud at polling sites was widely circulated after those elections.

Mr. Putin, who is seeking a third presidential term in the March 4 poll, has accused the protest movement of working to delegitimize the electoral process. Broadcasting the elections on the Internet will “completely remove all falsifications,” he said when he announced the project on Dec. 15.

“I want to rely on the popular will of the people, on their trust,” Putin later said.

Members of the Russian opposition and independent election observers have reacted to the plan with skepticism, citing its cost and uncertain benefit. Many say that the webcams are a technological fix to an issue that warrants true dialogue and reform.

No room for error

The ambitious project has an official price tag of $430 million, although the total cost to the government is estimated at  $840 million (26 billion rubles) when factoring in services provided at a loss by the state telecommunications entity Rostelecom. It calls for two cameras to be installed at every polling site, with the exception of certain state-run institutions, said Ilya Massukh, deputy minister of communications and mass media, at a press conference on Jan. 13.

The footage from the cameras will be livestreamed, and on election day, visitors to the special online platform hosting the video will be able to switch between precincts to observe citizens casting their votes. After voting ends in the last district, the cameras will switch to broadcasting the tallying of votes, complete with sound.

The government has purchased more than 350,000 computers and web cameras from foreign suppliers after determining that Russian companies lacked the capacity to complete the rush order. The last of the equipment reached Moscow last week, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. 

Thousands of technicians have been mobilized to install the necessary software in two factories near Moscow and distribute the equipment to the individual polling sites across Russia, all by the first week of March.

What would be a challenging proposition in any country is complicated in Russia by poor Internet infrastructure. Many of the schools that serve as polling sites in the country’s far-flung regions were only recently connected to the Internet at speeds too low to support the video transmission. The state telecommunications provider Rostelecom intends to lay thousands of miles of broadband cable – and it must do so within the next five weeks in the dead of winter.

“We don’t have any room for error” in constructing the system, said Mr. Massukh. “And that also creates a certain degree of pressure.” If the plan succeeds, the total amount of footage generated on March 4 will equal almost 250 years of video, exceeding the amount YouTube averages every two months, Massukh said. The system is designed to support an expected 25 million viewers on election day. Editor's note: This sentence has been edited to correctly reflect the number of viewers on election day.

Skepticism about impact

Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets who announced his presidential run after December’s protests, dismissed the project as a wasteful “profanity” on air with radio station Echo Moscow.

“The project has an important symbolic meaning as a gesture but it is unlikely that it will have a real effect on the election results,” says Ilya Ponomarev, a deputy in the State Duma from the party Just Russia.

The work of human election monitors is more important because of their ability to obtain copies of the election protocols where the results are recorded, he says. Manipulation of the protocols after the votes have been tallied is the most common type of election fraud in Russia, he explains.

Election monitors reported in the past that the most egregious fraud often happens in those state-run institutions that will not have cameras – hospitals, prisons, and military facilities.

Whether the videos can be used as evidence in possible investigations into electoral fraud is unclear. There has been no change to Russian election law to specifically provide for the use of web cameras, says Aleksandr Ignatov, acting director of the Russian Public Institute of Election Law.

Amateur videos taken during the recent Duma (parliament) elections were widely rejected as inadmissible evidence in court. While the fact that this initiative was led by the government should give it some weight, it remains the prerogative of each judge to decide whether to admit the videos as evidence should there be an investigation, Mr. Ignatov says.

Cameras can't fix systemic issues

Systemic issues affecting the fairness of Russia’s electoral system will be not be captured by the cameras. Putin faces no serious competitor in the vote, despite his sagging poll numbers. Procedural election rules are often used to prevent opposition candidates from appearing on the ballot.

One such rule is the requirement that candidates from parties not represented in the State Duma gather 2 million signatures in support of their candidacy. On Jan. 27, the Russian Central Election Commission disqualified presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal opposition party Yabloko, citing too many invalid signatures.

Mr. Yavlinsky labeled the decision “purely political” and said it was aimed at preventing his supporters from acting as election monitors. Without Yavlinksy on the ballot, his party is barred under Russian law from dispatching monitors to polling sites. Yabloko’s exclusion reduces the possibilities for independent election monitoring, says Lilia Shibanova, director of the election monitoring organization Golos.

Many observers say that a Putin victory is likely. Even if he does win, the opposition hopes to hold him to less than 50 percent of the vote, something that would force the first presidential runoff in Russia since 1996. Current polling shows Putin’s support hovering near this mark.

The prospect for a narrow election outcome raises the stakes for the public’s perceptions of the election’s integrity. With the cameras rolling, evidence of fraud could again lead protesters unto the streets.

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