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.

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