I recently visited Russia, where a mild-mannered historian from the city of Astrakhan, Oleg Shein, is on a hunger strike protesting a stolen mayoral election he believes he won. But as Russia starves for free and fair elections, Republicans across the United States are starving our democracy — and too few have noticed. And their furious assault on voting rights is no less destructive to democracy than the vote-rigging we deplore in Russia. Over the past year, Republican legislators in 34 states have proposed legislation that would drastically restrict voting for an estimated 5 million eligible voters. Seven states have passed laws requiring voters to show photo ID — which more than one in 10 Americans lacks — and dozens of others have eliminated early voting, disenfranchised ex-felons or limited the ability of civic organizations to register voters. The consequences are clear in Texas, for example, where you can now register to vote with a handgun license but not a college ID.
Elections chief Vladimir Churov raised opposition hopes of overturning Astrakhan’s mayoral election by announcing widespread procedural violations, a claim made by candidate Oleg Shein and his supporters. Video footage revealed procedural violations at 128 of the city’s 202 polling stations during the March 4 vote, although there was no evidence of falsification, Churov told journalists Friday. The announcement was greeted with jubilation by Shein, whose refusal to concede the election to the ruling party candidate and a dramatic hunger strike have turned him into an opposition hero. “Our chances of success in court have been significantly improved,” he wrote on his blog. “Now I’m confident that the court will annul the election in Astrakhan.” Shein says he defeated United Russia’s Mikhail Stolyarov in districts with electronic counting machines as well as in exit polls, sparking allegations that the vote was rigged. Officially, Shein lost the election to Stolyarov by more than 30 percentage points.
Russia admitted on Wednesday that some irregularities had taken place in the course of a disputed mayoral election in a southern Russian city last month, after the victory of a pro-Kremlin candidate there set off a wave of anti-government protests. The disputed election in Astrakhan has become a focus for the opposition as it tries to breathe new life into its protest movement which has lost steam since Vladimir Putin was elected president for a six-year term on March 4. Street rallies against alleged electoral fraud and a prolonged hunger strike by a defeated opposition candidate have thrust the events in the otherwise sleepy Caspian city into the heart of Russia’s political fray. On Wednesday, Russia’s top election official Vladimir Churov said there had been some irregularities after all.
Thousands of protesters rallied Saturday in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan to support a hunger-striking politician who alleges a recent mayoral race was marred by fraud, the latest show of determination by opposition forces. Shouting slogans such as “Astrakhan will be free,” the protesters for about four hours marched through the city, stopping at a park, a square and the politician’s headquarters, under the eye of phalanxes of police. At least three arrests were reported. The case of Oleg Shein. who claims the fraud denied him his rightful victory in the mayor’s race last month, has become prime cause for opposition figures who were at the forefront of this winter’s unprecedented huge protests in Moscow. Those protests and other large ones in St. Petersburg were sparked by reports of extensive fraud in December’s national parliamentary elections and they continued as the March 4 presidential election approached.
“Day 24 is over,” Oleg Shein wrote in his blog just after midnight on April 8. “Tomorrow is Day 25. We are not on a suicide mission. Nor are we on a mission to make me the mayor. We are on a mission to secure fair elections that will put an end to the mafia system of government in Astrakhan.” The politician Oleg Shein and 21 of his supporters are on hunger strike — most of them since March 16. Shein ran for mayor of Astrakhan, a city of just over half a million people in southern Russia, near where the Volga River joins the Caspian Sea. On March 4, Shein lost with under 30 percent of the vote — and, like many independent candidates around the country, he claims the election was stolen.