The Argument For Compulsory Voting In Russia

One of the central (I would argue, the central) conundrum of all discussions about Russian elections fraud at the macro-scale is that the major pieces of evidence simply don’t fit together.

On the one hand, you have pre-elections polls that uniformly gave United Russia 50% or more of the vote; in fact, the last Levada and VCIOM polls revealed before the elections gave it 53% and 54%, respectively. The real result was 49.3%. The 0% Club then argued: “Of course fraud must have been minimal, just look at those polls! If anything, United Russia rigged the elections against itself!”

These polls, of course, present big problems not only to the 15% Club – who tend to dismiss them out of hand, or conspiratorially (and implausibly) claim they only give the results the Kremlin orders them to – but to the 5% Club. After all, the polls’ margins of error are only 3% or so, and besides, there are dozens of them – if they consistently give United Russia an average of about 53% and the 5% Club (by definition) believes its honest result should be 44% or so, then that’s a big problem!

Reconciling these contradictions has been neglected, but is highly necessary in a time when questions about the true extent of fraud are becoming burning political issues. I will try to provide a short preliminary hypothesis here.

If you take a look at the detailed breakdown of the polls, you will notice that 25%-30% of respondents consistently say that either they would not participate in the elections or that they did have not decided yet. This implies a turnout of 70%-75% (in terms of answering an opinion poll). However, also note that the real turnout is, in fact, 60% (and more like 55% when adjusted for fraud, if the 5% Club are correct).

Then remind yourself of what the 15% Club are always hollering about: As turnout increases, only United Russia benefits. (Before we get sidetracked by their claims that this must be a result of fraud, however, recall that the 0% Club and the 5% Club both have perfectly innocuous and natural explanations for this pattern: Namely, the “silent majority” that supports United Russia, but is far more politically apathetic than supporters of the opposition. Successfully mobilizing this “silent majority” is the Kremlin’s main challenge, and this has been a constant throughout modern Russian history; recall the 1996 election when Yeltsin was appealing to the Russians to go out and vote to forestall the Communist victory that would have resulted had they remained at home in large numbers. In contrast, a party like the Communists has a hard core of supporters who tend to turn out reliably; thanks to proportional representation, their votes are never “lost” even though the KPRF has no real chance of winning.)

Now participating in a poll is somewhat less bothersome than going out and voting. Besides, many people – when answering questions – may be conforming to the social expectation that elections are a civic duty, whereas in real life nobody is actually watching whether or not they actually fulfill that duty. As a result, real turnout is around 20% points less than turnout as implied by opinion polls.

But those people who would say they’d vote but then not bother doing so are the apathetic ones – the exact electorate that United Russia most appeals to!

Let’s illustrate this with a quick and dirty numbers experiment. Say you take an opinion poll of 1,000 Russian citizens. 250 of them are undecided; 750 reveal a political preference, of which 400 are for United Russia. (This all correlates to your typical VCIOM or FOM poll). 400 of 750 is 53%, i.e. the typical support shown for United Russia in pre-elections polls from October 2011 onwards.

Now, assume that in the real elections, only 550 turn out – some 200 fewer than the 750 who revealed a preference. These 200 were mostly people who are not very interested in politics and passively support United Russia, but not to the extent that they can be bothered sacrificing their Sunday for this elections nonsense. Say 75% of them, that is 150, would have voted for United Russia had the opinion pollster carried the ballot box round to their house, but didn’t. That means that United Russia now has only 250 votes, that is 400 less 150, out of a total of 550, that is 750 less 200. United Russia has 45.5%, quite a lot less than the opinion polls predicted it.

That happens to fall within the 5% Club’s range. The results would be rounded up to 49.3% by stuffing in 50 false ballots, of which 46 would be for United Russia. The official turnout at 60% now also corresponds to real world figures.

These are admittedly very crude, back of the envelope calculations, but I think they do convincingly explain the variation between high opinion poll scores for United Russia (low to mid 50%’s); the official result (49.3%); and the range of reasonable estimates for the fraud-adjusted result (40%-47%). What do you think?

The Case for Compulsory Voting

One final point I would like to make is that, especially given its recent legitimacy problems, the Kremlin would be very wise to legislate compulsory voting. In Australia, where this is implemented, voter turnout is at a constant 95%; by eliminating the big segment of non-voters, the Kremlin achieves at least three major aims:

  • It substantially increases support for United Russia and the Kremlin candidate since many more of its passive supporters will be jolted into voting; none of the opposition parties stand to benefit likewise.
  • It makes fraud a lot more difficult. Stuffing ballots is one thing, redistributing votes between parties is another. I assume that the Kremlin realizes it is in its own interests to be perceived as holding credible elections. Besides, the extra support from passive voters means that stuffing will become even less necessary for getting good results.
  • It can use the change to portray itself as a promoter of civic responsibility.

Whatever one’s views on the concept of compulsory voting from a personal liberties prospective, I think that in Russia at least there is a strong case to be made that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.


  1. I could never understand people who don’t bother to vote. Maybe in Canada you have to stand in line for a bit if you vote at the busiest time of the day, but in Russia with its absurdly high number of ballot stations within walking distance there is simply no excuse.

    If Russia implemented the Australian approach then there would be howls in the western media about oppression. Evil Putin regime forces innocent Putin haters to vote and their votes are all stolen! But seriously, if the voter turnout in Australia is 95% then this is a good idea assuming Russians to get too resentful about being “forced” to vote.

  2. “United Russia now has only 250 votes, that is 400 less 150, out of a total of 550, that is 700 less 200.”

    I think your math is a bit off on this bit.

  3. I have no philosophical objection to forcing citizens to vote, provided there is an option to vote “against all”, which I believe was taken away from Russian voters in the last election.

  4. Voter turnout in Australia is 81%, not 95%. It is only 95% of registered voters – over 10% aren’t registered. Australia also has very high level of informal (invalid) or donkey voting which makes the turnout even lower. Many countries with voluntary voting have higher turnouts than Australia including Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Malta. Compulsory voting is only enforced in 9 countries in the world and just the other week it was abolished in Chile, for similar reasons to why it should be abolished in Australia.

  5. I would go with Jason regarding voter turnout in Australia. Since the 1990s the government has made it harder for people to register as voters particularly during election periods. The Howard government was particularly notorious in calling elections and forcing people not yet registered into rushing their applications because you’re not allowed to register within 3 weeks of an election being due but from 2004 to 2010 people couldn’t register as voters after 8:00 pm on the day that an election was announced and if the election happened to take place 3 weeks after the writ was issued, that meant unregistered voters completely missed out on voting. The law was repealed when GetUp! won a High Court decision against it. It is much easier to be unregistered and not vote than to be registered and not vote because in the latter situation you will be fined if you don’t vote.

    I have occasionally registered donkey votes because in the electorate where I live the choice is usually between Tweedledee and Tweedledum with regards to parties and their platforms. In 2007, an interesting candidate actually stood in my electorate – a lap-dancing lawyer who campaigned for greater sexual permissiveness and more dogged pursuit of priests who molested children in their pastoral care – so I voted for her.

    Some electorates have a better or wider range of candidates to vote for than others. In some parts of Sydney you may get a choice of Australian Labor Party, Liberal Party or Greens for the lower house which is hardly much choice at all. Voting for the Senate is more interesting as at least there is a choice of minor or obscure parties and independent candidates to select. I’ve usually gone for Socialist Equality Party as I’m familiar with their associated website

    We could get a higher voter turnout if the Australian Electoral Commission allowed online voting. Voting could be supervised so that voters can vote only once and are able to print out receipts that tell them who they have voted for. They should be allowed to change their vote if they make a mistake within a 2-day grace period. Forcing people to go to churches or schools far from where they live in their district and to struggle with bits and pieces of paper is ridiculous in an age where we should be able to vote online. Estonia has online voting, why don’t we? India uses a computer-based system in its general elections and as far as I can tell everyone there seems quite happy with it considering that a huge number of voters are illiterate or live in very remote districts inaccessible by car. Computer voting has a bad name here but that’s because the media tends to focus on American computer voting which is notoriously corrupt.

    • I agree with Jennifer – voting should be online.

      If we have a choice between educating, inspiring, and empowering the electorate to take full advantage of their democratic freedom, or alternatively forcing people to comply under threats of fines and ultimately violence; we should choose the former because it leads to better leadership.

      Under voluntary voting, leaders who can’t inspire, motivate, and empower people will be replaced by leaders who can. True leaders. Democratic leaders.

      • I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept of a lap-dancing lawyer. So exciting, but at the same time so forbidding; kind of like a hot nun.

    • I also agree with online voting as at least another option. In Australia we had the option to complete the census online last year as well as being able to submit our tax returns electronically for the last few years. I can’t see why this can’t be applied to voting as well. Also it may help reduce donkey voting as online forms can ensure votes are valid before they are submitted. Those who intend to submit a protest vote can still go their nearest polling station and do it manually.

      • There’s no need to facilitate protest votes in this way if you just remove the penalties for not voting – then people could simply protest by not voting. And anyway, penalising people for exercising their democratic freedom is an abhorrent and oppressive injustice. It’s better to inspire, motivate, educate, and empower the electorate rather than using threats and ultimately violence.

  6. I agree with Kirill, the compulsory voting may benefit the United Russia, but the election being “compulsive” is bound to be criticized by the West and the opposition. It is up to the parties to convince their supporters to vote.
    A “nano”, micro example. My friend’s daughter who at thirty still has no job, prefers to study forgotten Medieval dances, and who gets 100 support from her United Russia supporting working hard parents, is very active on Russian social sites in support of the opposition.
    Well, I asked her where are the pictures from the marches. None. She didn’t go… I asked her for whom did she vote – she didn’t bother… So the last question was, “If “they” couldn’t even steal your vote, what was your protest about?” No answer… In Russia Fronde is often vague….

  7. I think the point of potential discrepancies caused by differences between party preferences and going to vote is a good one, I was wondering about it as well. Though, I had the impression that polling companies make amendments based on these two variables to come up with good forecasts. Do you think it is not the case in Russia?

    Moreover, there is one additional factor worth considering that might be a complete game changer, inter alia in case of the idea of compulsory voting. It’s the people about whom we know literally nothing. Let’s take a look how an ordinary sample of 1600 people is composed. There are something like 4000 households visited, however interviewers can get no contact from almost half of them(!). In circa 1000 households no one was home after 3 visit, for another 1000 residents did not wish to open the door for the interviewer. (I am a bit puzzled how they now this, but that’s what they claim. There is also a small number of households that turn out not to be residential addresses or unoccupied, but let’s neglect them.) There have to be something like 2000 contact made for 1600 interviews to be conducted. A small number of the interviews gets disrupted, and there is a significant share of the people who do not wish to participate. It’s been usually between 20 and 40% in the last 20 years.

    Now, based on the way we conceptualize self-selection (including people not willing to open the door for interviewers or not), it’s overall share is somewhere between 20 and 55%, based on rough estimates. Inferences based on surveys make the assumption that the part of the society that wishes to participate is (roughly) the same as the one that is not. But that is at best a shaky assumption, because as I have mentioned it earlier we have no means to get any information from these people. Hence, I say introducing compulsory voting is extremely risky from the view of authorities. I see little chance of it being implemented.

    As of my sources, for data on surveys see the documentation of the New Russia Barometer (joint project of the Levada Center and the University of Aberdeen).
    More interesting thoughts on mandatory voting on The Monkey Cage.

  8. alexander mercouris says:

    I am not in favour of this. We used to have compulsory voting in Greece but we still had election fraud that everybody knew about. Also as I remember it was widely resented. Russia is not Australia and there is also it seems to me the risk that compulsory voting would simply provide another instrument for “administrative pressure”.

    Besides the very fact that a party’s supporters are not turning out to vote for it in itself should send a signal to the party. In 2001 turnout in the election in Britain fell from over 70% to 58%. This collapse in turnout was unprecedented in British elections and came as a shock. Labour won the election in 2001 and Blair was confirmed as Prime Minister but what the election of 2001 showed was the steep decline of his popularity following his landslide victory in 1997. Note that this declne of Blair’s popularity took place before the Iraq war. Post election studies confirmed that if turnout had been higher Labour would have benefitted and its majority would have been greater.

  9. What this discussion illustrates is the “weakness” of voting, for want of a better term, as a way of determining who is the best party or who are the best politicians to lead a country that professes democracy as its form of government.

    Voting in elections, whether it is made compulsory or not, requires that the electorate be knowledgeable about the political process and what elections can and can’t achieve. In most democracies however, the majority of the population either has no interest in politics, or at least in understanding what political structures exist, or is interested but can’t make its interest known because the news and news-related media on which it relies pursues its own agenda in relation to politics.

    In Australia at least, the news media supports the conservative parties (the Liberals and Nationals) and there is a distinct centre-right slant to its reporting. Newspapers owned by News International have a very strong right-wing orientation and newspapers owned by the Fairfax group tend to be centre-right. The result often is that when Australians vote, they favour parties that are centre-right in their ideologies and policy platforms. This was particularly so during the Howard government years to the extent that many if not most Australians still believe the Howard government was one of the best the country has had in spite of the fact that it had no vision and did not invest in new industries and technologies that would diversify our economy away from mining and other primary industries. As a result we are overly dependent on mining and are now having issues with the mining industry impinging on agricultural industries over land use, in particular over hydraulic fracturing in gas-bearing rocks under agricultural land.

    I imagine that in countries where the mainstream news media is more diverse and voting is made compulsory, that the electorate will have a more diverse political outlook but will still be quite conservative as to its party preferences. People will vote for particular parties on the basis of whether their parents, other relatives, marital partners or other significant people and groups in their lives vote for these parties. In Australia, voting sometimes shows past historic and ethnic-based patterns. Many Greek Australians traditionally vote for left-wing parties because they or their parents and grandparents supported left-wing groups during the civil war that broke out in Greece in the late 1940s. When these groups were defeated by the monarchist forces (backed by Britain and the US), many of their followers fled overseas to avoid imprisonment and torture. Similarly Hungarian Australians orient to right-wing parties because most of them came to Australia after the 1956 revolt against Communist rule in Hungary was crushed by Soviet forces.

    I’m probably not wrong in saying that most Australians, if we had an unbiased news media, would opt for a government that promises and can guarantee most forms of economic security such as employment, a stable economy in which people can make personal investment choices (buy a house, buy a second property or buy shares or invest in a business) and health insurance. Some form of social welfare (support for war widows and families fostering children with disabilities or children with unstable backgrounds) and perhaps basic unemployment support that prods people firmly back into work would find favour. Personally I favour a universal guaranteed income that cuts out slicing and dicing needy people into categories and assigns them to different government departments. Having compulsory or voluntary voting would make little difference; the issue is political inertia and educating people about their rights and responsibilities as voters.

    • It makes a big difference. Under compulsory voting the major political parties don’t need to motivate their base. This concentrates all their efforts on the same group of swinging voters at the centre. While the parties hide behind this facade of centrality (and let’s hope it remains a facade because nobody wants a one party state) it confuses the heck out of the electorate. And in their confusion people are forced to make a choice… or at least show up. When freedom is mandatory, it ceases to be freedom. If voting is voluntary the political parties need to motivate, educate, inspire, and empower the electorate – and motivate their base. This leads to better informed voters, and can also lead to higher turnouts. Who knows how many donkey votes we get, and we know there’s a lot of informal votes. Even so, our 81% turnouts are still lower than many countries where voting is voluntary. Voluntary voting can lead to more votes, better informed votes, better leadership, and greater social justice. We need to make this important change. Our decision to vote should be democratic.

      • Jason,

        You say that if voting is voluntary, the political parties “need to motivate … and empower the electorate … This leads to better informed voters, and can also lead to higher turnouts” – but look at the American electoral process where voting is voluntary and you will find that the major political parties, for all the money they can afford to spend (and they get huge donations), do not go out of their way to try to attract undecided or swinging voters or to educate people about their voting rights and responsibilities. They certainly do not go out of their way to attract potential voters in their late teens / early 20s. There have been anecdotal reports of people being wiped off electoral rolls because they shared a name with criminals, voters dissuaded from voting because a polling station was too far away or closed early on a work-day, or voters being prevented from voting because they were black or Hispanic. Also look at Alexander Mercouris’s comments above about voter turnout during the 2001 general elections in Britain where voting is voluntary.

        Ideally people should be taught their civic and voting responsibilities at school or college and agencies such as the Australian Electoral Commission in Australia and their equivalents in other countries should conduct short educational programs or seminars about voting and the political process. Short 2 or 5-minute ads on TV near news programs might be one example of educating people.

        • Jennifer, compulsory voting is only enforced in 9 countries in the world. America has problems of it’s own. Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Malta all have higher turnouts than we do, under their voluntary voting. It is better if people vote because they want to and are informed rather than filing into the booth like donkeys to avoid a fine. You say voting is a responsibility. To who? Maybe you see it is a responsibility but that doesn’t mean I need to. Maybe I vote for purely selfish reasons. Maybe. And that is my right, or at least it should be. I would not steal your right to vote and you shouldn’t want to steal mine. As a leader if you want more people to vote for you, you should get out and sell democracy, like Barack Obama did when he was here. Those leaders who would rather resort to threats, fines, and violence are not true leaders and they don’t deserve our support. Leaders who rule by the force of law, are not the type of leaders we want. Instead of violence you should err on the side of peace and democratic freedom. You say “taught their civic responsibility in school” that sounds a bit too North Korea for me and it is completely unnecessary under voluntary voting. Remember, voluntary voting works perfectly well in most countries around the world. Resorting to stealing people’s freedom is not the answer. It is oppressive and sends precisely the wrong message. We need to empower people so they use their vote well, not steal their power away. Stealing people’s freedom to teach the value of freedom represents an abhorrent lie. I believe in freedom because I believe in you. Choose peace, not heavy handed regulation, central control, and violence. Give freedom a chance. Give peace a chance.

          • Jason,

            I should have made my personal position clear. If countries have compulsory voting, then the governments of those countries have a responsibility to educate the electorate on the political process and voting and the electorate’s rights and responsibilites in that regard. They can do it through the AEC in Australia or its equivalents elsewhere. If governments neglect their responsibility to the electorate, why should people bother with having to vote? In that respect, compulsory voting is a burden.

            I prefer voting to be a voluntary option – bearing in mind of course, that voluntary voting imposes a responsibility on political parties to appeal to as many potential voters with appropriate policies and policy platforms which in the UK and US they seem not to do. (They often gun for their diehard constituencies instead which is why the Republican Party in the US comes out with sometimes eccentric personalities like Michelle Bachmann and Mitt Romney
            and equally bizarre positions that seem out of touch with the broad US electorate.)

            Ideally in any democracy, knowing your civic rights and the duties that may go with them should be part of any person’s education. By “duties”, I mean wanting to participate directly at the local, State or Federal level by joining political parties, doing volunteer work or assisting with electoral campaigns (eg handing out how-to-vote flyers, assisting voters with directions, serving lemonade and hot dogs). Such duties are entirely optional and people should have the option of ignoring the political process altogether but this means they should know all the options available to them before they make that choice.

            Schools are ideal places to teach people about their civic rights and duties because the minimum voting age is 18 years and most people have to pass through school anyway. As most people have access to the Internet (and perhaps it’s time for the Australian government to consider giving people the legal right to have Internet access as Finland has done), Australian newspapers should offer online information about voting rights and responsibilities as should also current affairs programs like Channel 7’s Today Tonight. If schools are prevented from teaching civics, how else do we empower people and young people especially about voting?

            • Hi Jennifer, I am glad your are in favour of freedom.

              It is better to polarise towards the left and the right, than the centre like our system does.

              But even with the polarisation in the U.S., Republican candidate Ron Paul is anti war, anti drug laws, and anti corporate bailouts. If he wins, and he might, it would make the Republicans more peace-loving than the Democrats, which would shift the goal posts entirely. It would change the whole face of politics in the U.S. Let’s hope Paul beats Romney and all the other loons he’s running against. He’s the only one who puts principle ahead of votes.

              • I don’t agree with Ron Paul’s positions on most issues apart from foreign policy but he is more consistent and open in his policy platform than the other Republican Party candidates and certainly more so than Barack Obama who is only consistent in being more of a war hawk than George W Bush was. Paul at least abides by the US Constitution. If I had to pick a Republican Party preference, I would pick Paul.

                His son Rand Paul on the other hand is very suspect in his allegiances and appears no different from most other politicians in Congress.

  10. Happy New Year, Anatoly!! I wish you a 2012 that adds many notches to your Russophobe stick.

    Happy New Year to your interesting and eclectic commenters as well.

  11. Happy New Year to all in the Sublime Oblivion comments corridas!