Archives for December 2011

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.

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United Russia Steals Votes, And The WSJ Steals Others’ Work

On December 28th, the WSJ published an article on “Russia’s Dubious Election” by Gregory White and Rob Barry (it’s behind a paywall, but you can read it here). In it they described the most famous argument for the 15% Club (i.e., the purported scale of fraud in the 2011 Duma elections) – namely, that of Sergey Shpilkin. A brief description of his approach: Observe that a higher turnout means more votes for United Russia; make a blanket assumption that all these extra votes are suspect, remove them as “irregularities”, and voila! United Russia’s plummets from 49% to about 34%! (Neither he nor the WSJ, to their credit, claim that it proves fraud; they use the more qualified phrase “cast doubt”). In the process, not only the elections are discredited but pretty much the entirety of Russian opinion polling and exit polling (a reminder: all the pre-elections polls gave United Russia 50% or more, and the most comprehensive exit poll, FOM, was 6% lower than its official tally).

What other Russian bloggers have pointed out is that a whole lot of other countries – Germany, the UK, Israel – have similar voting tendencies. There, more turnout means more votes for their conservative parties (Christian Democrats, Tories, Kadima, respectively). So since most readers would agree that those countries have clean elections, the “more turnout and more votes for one party MUST MEAN fraud fraud fraud!!!” thesis can’t exactly be universally valid.

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List Of Estimates On Fraud In Russia’s 2011 Duma Elections

Despite Olga Kryshtanovskaya’s disapproval, I thought it would be interesting and useful to compile a comprehensive list of blogger, pundit and “expert” opinions on the extent of fraud in the 2011 Duma elections. Interspersed among these opinions and analyses are results from federal opinion polls and other evidence.

In general, it seems we can identify three “theses” or “clubs.” The 0% Club holds the idea that falsifications were non-existent or minimal; it is advanced by Kremlin officials and supported by many opinion polls. Its polar opposite is the 15% Club, which is supported by several statistical analyses; its adherents include the liberal and non-systemic opposition. The 5% Club argues that United Russia should not have gotten a Duma majority, but many of their proponents believe that the elections are legitimate nonetheless. Estimates range from 2% to 10%, with a wealth of opinion polling and statistical analysis in support. Most of the systemic opposition and arguably most Russians belong to this club.

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Measuring Churov’s Beard: The Mathematics Of Russian Election Fraud

In the aftermath of the 2011 Duma elections, the Russian blogosphere was abuzz with allegations of electoral fraud. Many of these were anecdotal or purely rhetorical in nature; some were more concrete, but variegated or ambiguous. A prime example of these were opinion polls and exit polls, which variably supported and contradicted the Kremlin’s claims that fraud was minimal. But there was also a third set of evidence. Whatever problems Russia may have, a lack of highly skilled mathematicians, statisticians and programmers certainly isn’t one of them. In the hours and days after the results were announced, these wonks drew on the Central Electoral Commission’s own figures to argue the statistical impossibility of the election results. The highest of these fraud estimates were adopted as fact by the opposition. Overnight, every politologist in the country – or at least, every liberal politologist – became a leading expert on Gaussian distributions and number theory.

While I don’t want to decry Churov, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, for making subjects many people gave up back in 8th grade fun and interesting again, I would like to insert a word of caution: lots of math and numbers do not necessarily prove anything, and in fact – generally speaking – the more math and numbers you have the less reliable your conclusions (not making this up: the research backs me up on this). Complicated calculations can be rendered null and void by simple but mistaken assumptions; the sheer weight of figures and fancy graphs cannot be allowed to crowd out common sense and strong diverging evidence. Since the most (in)famous of these models asserts that United Russia stole 15% or more of the votes, it is high time to compile a list of alternate models and fraud estimates that challenge that extremely unlikely conclusion – unlikely, because if it were true, it would essentially discredit the entirety of Russian opinion polling for the last decade.

In this post, I will compile a list of models built by Russian analysts of the scale of electoral fraud in the 2011 Duma elections. I will summarize them, including their estimates of aggregate fraud in favor of United Russia, and list their possible weak points. The exercise will show that, first, the proper methodology is very, very far from settled and as such all these estimates are subject to (Knightian) uncertainty; but second, many of them converge to around 5%-7%, which is about the same figure as indicated by the most comprehensive exit poll. This is obviously very bad but still a far cry from the most pessimistic and damning estimates of 15%+ fraud, which would if they were true unequivocally delegitimize the Russian elections.

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What They Say After: The Post-Elections Polls

Citing evidence revolving around pre-elections opinion polls and exit polls, in my Al Jazeera article on the Russian Duma elections I made the argument that “the aggregate level of falsifications is probably at around five per cent, and almost certainly less than ten per cent” (with the caveat that it was far worse in several regions, including – and controversially to some commentators on this blog – Moscow). Since then, the main polling organizations have released a series of post-elections polls, and pre-elections polls that could not be legally published on the eve of the elections that appear to confirm my initial judgment*.

First up was VCIOM, a week ago. We remind that their exit poll predicted 48.5% for United Russia (final result: 49.3%), which is well within the margin of error. Their new polls seem to confirm this. In their Nov 26 poll and their Nov 30 poll, some 37% and 41% said they were going to vote for United Russia, respectively; after the elections, in Dec 10, this had dropped to 35%. However, one has to bear in mind that only 72%, 75%, and 76% respectively displayed a preference for any one party; the rest said they wouldn’t participate, hadn’t decided or couldn’t answer, or intended to spoil their ballots. Adjusting for these, of committed voters some 51% and 55% said they intended to vote for United Russia in the week before the elections on Dec 4 (average 53%, i.e. basically no change from Nov 20)*. The result from Dec 10 indicates a fall to 46% electoral support, but this is after several days of fraud allegations and very negative PR against United Russia and as such not too reliable. The post-elections slide in support for the party of power appears to have been a one-off; as of Dec 17, one percentage point more said they would vote for United Russia.

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Al Jazeera On Elections And White Ribbons

Russia’s winter of discontent? from Al Jazeera’s Stream. Overall, fairly balanced. I appear at 8:50 to ask a question about the suspicious timing – two months before the actual elections – of the creation of the website promoting the White Ribbon as the symbol of the anti-Kremlin protests.

Generally speaking, I’m skeptical about the more grandiose claims of foreign involvement in the discontent. But the White Ribbon does seem to fit the bill: It’s a nice memorable meme (i.e. a good revolutionary symbol), it’s site is under a .com domain, etc. But there’s one problem – whichever idiot came up with it didn’t bother tracking down its negative historic connotations. So no wonder it hasn’t really been catching on (despite the best efforts of our good friend Edward Lucas).

Kremlin Oligarch Brutally Censors Long-Suffering Russian Media (From Printing Gratuitous Profanities)

Imagine a respected American financial newspaper such as the WSJ writes an article investigating elections fraud in favor of the Democrats. To illustrate the rightness of their point, they include a photo of a ballot for the Republicans that – they allege – wasn’t tallied by the dodgy Solyndra machines rolled out for use in California in 2012. The ballot has “Obama, Go Fuck Yourself!” written out in big red letters. The captions below read: “Correctly filled out ballot, ruled spoiled.” A few days later, the newspaper’s owner fires a high-ranking editor and a CEO at the paper, noting that the publication of that photo “bordered on petty hooliganism.” The paper then apologizes to its readers and advertising partners. The Russian business paper Vedomosti titles its account of this episode “Washington Editor Fired Over Election Coverage”, while Russia Today does a documentary on the retreat of press freedoms in America without even bothering to mention the source of the controversy. You’d think this was a case of severe journalistic bias and incompetence in Russia, no?

I’m glad you do, because this is basically the saga of Kommersant Vlast’s publication of its investigation on falsifications in the Russian legislative elections. It has not been removed from the Internet, to the contrary you can still read it on their site and comment on it. It is an extensive work, titled “United Stuffers” (a play on United Russia) featuring a collection of twelve articles. The only part of it that was subject to “censorship” – and the reason given by its tycoon owner Alisher Usmanov for the dismissal of the editor who approved it – is the photograph below:

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My Article On The Russian Elections At Al Jazeera

The long-promised post is out, but not here but at Al Jazeera: Truth and falsifications in Russia. It has also been translated into Russian at (Правда и фальсификации в России).

In the spirit of democracy, I am adopting Alexander Kireev’s poll (kireev) to ask you guys what YOU think about how falsified these elections were. Please read the explanations of each option before voting, and to only judge these elections at the Russia level (as opposed to individual cities or districts). And don’t ballot stuff like La Russophobe! 😉

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All Opinion Polls Relevant To Russia’s 2011 Duma Elections

For now I’m just making the data available without commentary. Make of it what you will.

Levada (18-21 Nov), VCIOM (19-20 Nov), and ISI (4-10 Nov) predictions of election results based on polls.

Election results as of Dec 9th 2011, 16:55 Moscow time, 99.99% counted.

VCIOM (62 regions), FOM (80 regions), and ISI (24 regions) are exit polls.

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A Quick Note On Russia’s Duma Elections 2011

On reading Western commentary on the upcoming Russian Duma elections, I realized that they can’t decide between two narratives: either the popularity of United Russia is sinking faster than Herman Cain’s following his sex abuse scandals, thus meaning that it will manipulate the votes to get its desired majority; or Russian elections are complete shams anyway (as we all know) and thus irrelevant, which does away with the inconvenient fact that for all the liberals’ harping about United Russia being the “party of crooks and thieves” consistently more than 50% of Russians still insist on voting for it.

The reality is quite a bit simpler than these convoluted attempts to discredit Russian democracy (thought some are quite simple and transparent in their propaganda: given the data from opinion polls, it is hard to believe Miriam Elder, who wrote in the Guardian that when she asked a classroom of 22 students whether they would vote against United Russia, “every single student raises their hand”). As I wrote back in July, opinion polls of voter preferences closely correlate to election results. And unfortunately for some it just so happens that the “decline” of United Russia’s popularity is really little more than the product of fevered imaginations: as you can see from the list of opinion polls on Wikipedia, United Russia’s share of the vote (excluding the undecided and those who won’t vote) has stayed largely steady and well ahead of all the other parties.

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