Fraud, votes, and protest potential in Russia’s regions

Regina Smyth,
Professor, Political Science,
Indiana University,
United States

Timothy Model,
Quantitative Researcher,
Fors Marsh Group, LLC,
United States

Since 1993, Russian governments have engaged in election fraud. After 2003, outsized victories became common as the government used fraud as a means of projecting strength. In 2021, the Kremlin sought to increase United Russia’s (UR) vote in regions that lagged national averages, including Moscow. This goal was ambitious. Support for UR declined precipitously in pre-election polls. While the election has shown the regime’s capacity to manufacture votes, regional variation suggests limits to the regime’s ability to project a national constituency.

Regional variation

Many tools of electoral manipulation such as limiting party registration, controlling media, or changing rules are deployed at the national level. These changes do not provide voters with new information about the regime’s strength or regional support. In contrast, electoral control strategies such as barring candidates and ballot stuffing operate at the district or precinct level and provide insight into regional differences.

The 2021 contests highlighted regional variation in strategic deployment. In 2016 SMD races, the Kremlin included five or six candidates on each district ballot to shape UR victories. By 2021, both the number of candidates and party affiliations varied widely to accommodate local conditions. For example, the regime’s reliance on spoiler candidates sharing the same name as a strong challenger, and parties designed to draw support away from potential threats to UR candidates increased.

In some regions, manipulation could not obscure UR opposition. Perm saw a relatively competitive race where a regional NGO, Plus One, agitated to support independent candidates for the City Council. In 30 SMD races, UR secured victory with less than 30 percent of the vote. In Eastern Russia, early returns underscored declining regional support for UR and in the Nenets and Khabarovsk regions, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) outperformed UR in the proportional representation party list race (PR). The KPRF also increased its regional legislative cohorts in 34 of 39 regions.

Falsification shaped UR success in six regions where support for UR was declining. The Kremlin introduced a compromised system of electronic voting to falsify results. This innovation secured victories in SMD races and slowed voter defection in regional legislatures and the national PR race. Only in the contested region, Sevastopol, annexed from Ukraine in 2014, did UR support increase in the PR race. Only in Moscow, where electronic voting altered votes, did the UR faction in the regional duma increase.

In contrast, since the 1990s, Russia’s ethnic Republics have disproportionately influenced national votes and perceptions of UR popularity. This election was no different. In five regions, UR received at least 80 percent of the vote. Those regions – Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Tuva, and Chechen Republic – account for just 4.8 percent of the total votes cast but 8.1 percent of UR’s national total. The decision to allow citizens in Ukrainian territories plumped national totals another 0.5 percent. Without these regions, UR average regional support falls from 47.7 to 45.3 percent. Where UR received at least 70 percent of the vote,  nine regions – now including Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Kemerovo, and Tatarstan – make up 21 percent of UR’s national vote but just 13 percent of total votes cast. Excluding them drops UR regional average support to 43.7 percent.

This preliminary analysis suggests that the regime’s capacity to falsify remains strong in some regions, adding to national total and regional averages of turnout and vote share. Yet, a closer look at variation belies Kremlin rhetoric of national unity.

Dissonance and protest

As Khabarovsk and Nenets illustrate, regional variation in patterns of manipulation, turnout, and votes is linked to protest patterns. In a rare regional study of political attitudes, the Norwegian LegitRuss project shows that only 28 percent of respondents in Kemerovo, a super-region, said that they would vote for UR. In contrast, more than 50 percent of regional respondents expressed interest in attending a post-election protest, a number well above the national average. In Archangelsk 27 percent of respondents said that they would vote for UR, while 49 percent said that they would protest falsified results.

While interest is only the first stage of protest mobilization, the representation gap created by falsification is growing. This difference in social attitudes and election outcomes generates cognitive dissonance often expressed as anger, raising the potential for new issue-based protest. As with the recent, trash incinerator protests, these actions could spread rapidly across the Federation, demanding state response and spilling over into future politics.

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