July 3, 2020 / 2:31 PM / a month ago

A polling station that was observed records low turnout in Russian vote

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Some voters who took part in a referendum that paves the way for President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule over Russia said they had been asked by their employers to do so, and to provide evidence to bosses to show they did.

A man wearing a protective face mask and gloves casts his ballot at a polling station number 2668 during a seven-day nationwide vote on constitutional reforms in Reutov outside Moscow, Russia June 26, 2020. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova

Their accounts, to Reuters reporters who monitored polling station #2668 near Moscow throughout the seven days of voting, tally with Kremlin instructions to employers, seen by Reuters, asking them last month to ensure workers took part.

Despite that campaign, only 43% percent of eligible voters took part in the referendum at the polling station, below the national average of 68% and roughly half the percentage in the area where the station was located.

In fact turnout, an important measure for the Kremlin of support for Putin and the constitutional changes, was the lowest of all the 46 voting sites in the leafy town of Reutov, separated by an eight-lane highway from Moscow’s urban sprawl.

The average turnout in Reutov was 83%. At two polling stations in the same school building which Reuters did not observe, turnout was 85% and 87%.

Local election commission chief Olga Ukropova said the discrepancy may be because many of the residents in the four apartment blocks the polling station serves were not registered to vote there because they were migrants.

Historical data did not show distinct electoral results from the polling station in previous recent elections.

The Central Election Commission was not immediately available to comment. Kremlin officials did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

SHOW OF FORCE?

A woman who works in a nursery in the area said that she had voted in favour of the reforms.

“After this I will call my boss and tell her I voted, of course. That’s required,” she told Reuters, declining to give her name.

Another voter, who said she works for the tax service, said she had been advised by her employer to vote as early as possible. “They don’t tell you whether to vote ‘for’ or ‘against’. But they do ask you to report that you voted.”

The tax service did not respond to a request for comment.

Encouraging voting is not illegal, but the practice, which the Kremlin instructions called Project ‘Mobilisation in companies 2020’, suggests authorities wanted a strong turnout.

The Central Election Commission said 68% of the electorate took part nationwide and 78% voted for the reforms, which means an absolute majority - 58 million of Russia’s 109 million voters - supported the constitutional changes.

A woman at polling station #2668 said she needed to be photographed voting as proof for her boss and a man asked election officials for documented proof.

They declined to give their names and the polling station’s chairman, Rena Turayeva, declined to comment.

The Kremlin says the package of constitutional changes will strengthen the role of parliament and improve social policy and public administration.

Opposition activists have called the vote illegitimate and said it was designed to allow Putin to rule for life.

Golos, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections, said it had recorded numerous irregularities during the vote, including ballot stuffing and widespread cases of employers forcing staff to cast a ballot.

Members of a local electoral commission empty a ballot box at a polling station number 2668 during a seven-day nationwide vote on constitutional reforms in Reutov outside Moscow, Russia June 26, 2020. Picture taken June 26, 2020. REUTERS/Gleb Stolyarov

Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission, said on Friday the vote was “free, open, democratic to the maximum and fair.

“Its results are legitimate and indisputable.”

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the emphatic nature of the result was a measure of how deeply Russians trusted Putin to run the country.

Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Polina Ivanova, Gleb Stolyarov, Alexander Marrow, Anton Zverev, Polina Nikolskaya; writing by Polina Ivanova and Maria Tsvetkova; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Mike Collett-White

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