The events surrounding elections to the Moscow City Duma have created the largest political crisis of the last several years. It is predicated on the obvious prejudice of the district election commissions demonstrated in the course of reviewing the candidates’ documents.
The documents submitted for registration of some candidates underwent a quick and purely formal review. In many district election commissions, representatives of other candidates and independent members of the said commissions were not allowed to participate in the review of these candidates’ signature sheets, making it impossible to contest decisions on their registration. In the meantime, the signature sheets of other candidates were subjected to meticulous review. Such reviews were to a large measure held in violation of the law as there are numerous reports that reviews were held in the absence of candidates whose signature sheets were reviewed. It was this circumstance that was used as the basis for the suggestion to allow all the candidates that submitted the necessary number of signatures to participate in the elections, because registration of some candidates cannot be contested while justification of the refusal to register other candidates cannot be verified.
In connection with this, the society placed its hopes with the Central Election Commission that could return constitutional meaning and purpose to the elections. However, the Central Election Commission of Russia decided to stick to the legal nitpicking and formalistic interpretations that emasculate the essence of the election process.
On August 1 and 6, the working group of the Central Election Commission held its open meetings for preliminary review of grievances, considering the submitted appeals against the refusals to register Moscow candidates. As a result, the opinions of the working group on the refusal to settle the candidates’ grievances were upheld during the meetings of the Central Election Commission.
According to the federal law “On the Principal Guarantees of Electoral Rights and the Right to Referendum of the Russian Federation Citizens,” the election commissions are tasked with guaranteeing protection of the citizens’ electoral rights, and these include not just the right to elect and be elected, but also the right to partake in the nomination of candidates.
In the situation of acute crisis that led to mass street protests, the society’s attention was directed to the Central Election Commission as the last authority that could rally to the defense of the citizens’ electoral rights. This would require the objective, comprehensive and substantial consideration of the candidates’ legitimate claims against results of reviews of the voters’ signatures in support of their nomination.
The majority of problems with the signatures submitted by the candidates fall into three categories: omissions in the reference data of the Address Center of the Directorate for Migration Affairs of the Main Administration of the Interior Ministry for Moscow, which contains information on the discrepancies between voter data entries in the signature sheets and Interior Ministry’s own data; invalidity of the conclusions of handwriting experts who rejected the signatures or dates that were entered by the voters; mistakes and misprints made by the notaries and other persons engaged in the process of reviewing and authenticating the signatures. Other grievances referred to the violation of the principle of openness and publicity in the work of the election commissions, the principle of candidates’ equality, violations of the procedures of signature review, and unlawful and biased interpretation of the law by the election commissions in order to refuse registration to some candidates.
Each of the claims disputed by the candidates required detailed consideration and had to be interpreted in favor of the candidates whenever in doubt. Only such approach would conform to the goal of the election commission system that should protect the citizens’ electoral rights.
In particular, we believe that the working group of the Central Election Commission whose opinion forms the basis for the decisions of the election commissions had to review the statements of the voters who confirmed that they personally entered the dates and their signatures. In case of doubts, the voters themselves could be invited to the working group’s meetings as the legislation contains no ban on communication between election commission members and the citizens. Having said that, if a significant number of candidates’ objections regarding the work of handwriting experts were confirmed, the overall conclusions of the said handwriting expert would be discredited. After that, such conclusions couldn’t be used to make a decision to refuse candidates registration.
However, the working group of the Central Election Commission, just like the lower-level commissions, decided against detailed consideration of the said objections. Instead, it ordered another expert evaluation of the signatures in the same government agency, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, that had already submitted the conclusions contested in the Central Election Commission. Despite the engagement of new experts, the militarized structure itself, with its rigid internal hierarchy and adherence to the higher management’s orders, created the conflict of interest in the process of analyzing the colleagues’ conclusions.
Having said that, the Central Election Commission did not invite the unregistered candidates to these expert evaluations and did not offer them a chance to learn their results in due time. Moreover, the commission devoted a lot of its efforts to prove the inadequacy of the alternative handwriting expert evaluations that were submitted by the candidates and that refuted the conclusions of the experts engaged by the election commissions.
As a result, the new experts of the Ministry of Internal Affairs essentially repeated the conclusions of the previous ones without providing other more evidence-based data. For example, the repeated evaluation of signatures in support of Dmitry Gudkov’s nomination has ruled that the signatures sheets contained the exact same number of invalid signatures as was decreed by the first evaluation . At that, the first expert conclusion contained recognition of empty lines in the signature sheets or crossed-out signatures as invalid.
The commission refused to take into account the statements of the notaries who confirmed that they made a technical mistake in the process of authenticating the lists of the signature collectors and that authentication was real. Essentially, by submitting these statements the notaries performed the very function of authenticating the data.
The candidates’ objections regarding review of the voters’ data by the specialists of the Address Center of the Directorate for Migration Affairs of the Main Administration of the Interior Ministry for Moscow created an absurdist situation. The candidates and election commissions were presented only with resolutive statements claiming that certain data does not conform to the Interior Ministry’s database but were not given any specific information about such discrepancies or correct data. This prevented both the candidates and the commissions from objectively evaluating the veracity of evaluation’s results. Considering the large numbers of mistakes in the Ministry’s database, such failure is fundamentally important.
Having said that, the format that the Interior Ministry should follow in providing its reference information is specified in the protocol to the Agreement on Coordination between the Central Election Commission and the Ministry of Internal Affairs dated September 2, 2016. The protocol states that the reference template is “filled out by the territorial body of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the subdivision of the territorial body of the Ministry of Internal Affairs by way of entering data that differs from the listed.”
This hasn’t been done in a single case, however the members of the working group of the Central Election Commission assumed a position that contradicts the said Agreement. They claimed that the Ministry of Internal Affairs may present the data not in the approved format, but in accordance with its own internal documents and that it may not provide the voters’ personal data to the third parties, although the track record of other regions demonstrates that the Ministry’s employees have no problem doing this. From a legal point of view this means that the election commissions should not have accepted such references from the Ministry of Internal Affairs because they did not conform to the format specified in the Ministry’s agreement with the Central Election Commission.
The August 6 meeting of the working group of the Central Election Commission has demonstrated that its members have no interest in establishing the truth and protecting the citizens’ electoral rights. To the contrary, the working group, made up of 14 members of the Central Election Commission and 5 employees of the Commission’s administrative office, demonstrated accusatory attitude towards opposition candidates. The working group went all out trying to find the basis for preventing these candidates from taking part in the elections.
By claiming that it follows exclusively formal grounds for making decisions, the Central Election Commission does not take into account the statutory provisions in their broader context, forgetting that its intended purpose and primary obligation is to protect the electoral rights, in particular the rights to elect, of the significantly large numbers of citizens who not just gave their signatures in support of the candidates’ nomination but also went out to the streets to declare such support.
Essentially, the Central Election Commission did not remain “above the fray” but took the side of one of the conflict’s participants, demonstrating a biased approach.
The public demonstration of the failure to observe the principle of political neutrality in the work of election commissions and violation of the principle of equality towards the candidates with different political programs on the part of the country’s main election commission will lead to complete devaluation of the institute of elections for the Russian society.