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Putin's answer to polling fraud: lots of webcams

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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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