On March 18, 2018, Russians reelected President Vladimir Putin by a huge margin. Official reports say that 67 percent of voters went to the polls and that 76 percent of those supported the incumbent. This result comes as zero surprise, and media coverage has focused on the lack of true opposition candidates and allegations of ballot-stuffing. But there is more to this story. About 800,000 poll workers at more than 95,000 polling stations across Russia delivered basic administrative services for this election. This army of street-level bureaucrats verified voter identities, issued/counted the ballots and established the voting tallies at each precinct. How did Sunday’s election look, behind the scenes? We tend to assume that poll workers, whether they are in South Dakota or the Northern Caucasus, are professional and independent. Put simply, we expect poll workers to leave aside their political biases and ensure that voting takes place according to fair and impartial procedures.
And we tend to believe that polling commissions — whose job is to organize and manage elections properly — should include representatives of different parties. This makes for balanced monitoring and control, which helps diminish voting manipulation and election fraud.
On the basis of data about poll workers that we collected and analyzed, a number of reasons exist to be doubtful that Russia’s election commissions were balanced and unbiased. We spent several months monitoring the composition of precinct commissions before the 2018 election. We used official data disclosed by the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation.