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In the recent Russian presidential elections on March 18, 2018, foreign reporters and election observers noticed irregularities, incidents of election fraud and general violations in the voting process on several occasions (e.g. washingtonpost.com, golosinfo.ru, rferl.org, tagesschau.de, nytimes.com, reuters.com). Here is an extract from the Washington Post:

Other examples from observers and social media included ballot boxes being stuffed with extra ballots in multiple regions; an election official assaulting an observer; CCTV cameras obscured by flags or nets from watching ballot boxes; discrepancies in ballot numbers; last-minute voter registration changes likely designed to boost turnout; and a huge pro-Putin sign in one polling station.

A democratic election requires members of all important parties to observe the election during the preparation, voting and counting of the ballots. This makes sure that all ballots are counted truthfully and that the final result represents the actual votes. The same goes for independent observers from other countries and news organizations.

In the particular case of the Russian presidential elections in 2018, but also in principle, what can an election observer do if they notice serious problems with the election process? Do they have any legal power to force the government to re-do the elections, or is their job purely to increase transparency for the voters?

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I was an observer yesterday in a Yekaterinburg voting station. I had been trained at a local Alexey Navalny headquarters (video example of training), but was officially an observer from Grigory Yavlinsky.

As an observer, I had the right to make suggestions to the Chairman of the Voting Station Committee. In case a suggestion is not considered, an observer has the right to file a complaint, which must be considered at a Committee meeting either immediately or as soon as possible on the day of voting. The meeting must result in a written decision. The complaint is prepared in two copies. One copy remains with the observer to serve as proof of complaint. The first copy, along with the written verdict produced by the Committee, is attached to the Voting Protocol - the final document that contains the results of voting. Of course a copy of the verdict is also given to the observer.

If the observer does not agree with the Committee's decision they may use their attested copy to file a complaint with the superior Committee - the Territorial Voting Committee. In my case, this Committee was just 3 kilometers away. A representative of this Committee visited us at midday to make sure everything went smoothly. We (observers) had phone numbers of members of this Committee in case we had any problems.

The observer may also launch a case in an administrative or criminal court. He or she may also make the complaint public.

The observer has the right to make video records and take photos. These may serve to substantiate his complaints and claims, and decrease the perceived legitimacy of the election even if the observer's steps made through official channels (superior Committees, courts) failed to right the wrongs.

I sent updates on voting turnout each half-hour to my Alexey Navalny headquarters using a Telegram chatbot, and consulted with their specialists using a couple of Telegram chats.

At the end of voting, each observer gets a copy of the Voting Protocol with the final figures (turnout, votes given for each candidate, number of ballots used, number of ballots spoiled, etc.). The actual Protocol is sent to the superior Committee which decides whether the procedure was performed just so. It may decide to recount the votes - in this case it must call all the Station Committee members and observers, gather them again in a single room, and make them recount the ballots, for instance, and produce a new Protocol. In some more fraudulent nooks and crannies of the Russian Federation, observers sometimes discover that a second Committee meeting was called in their absence because the observers were allegedly "out of reach" by phone. The observer then may make noise in the media, showing that the second (observer-less) session produced a Protocol with figures that are more pleasant for the powers that be.

From a legal standpoint, there are two main laws that the observer may use in arguments with Committee members, in courts etc: Federal Law 67 "On basic guarantees" (lays down the rules for elections and referendums) and the Federal Law "On Presidential Election in the Russian Federation". There are also other laws that may be used to defend your rights as an observer.

According to amendments made in the legislation in 2016, an observer may not be removed from the voting station by Committee members. He or she may be removed only by a court decision. This makes it harder for corrupt Committee members to make up pretexts for getting rid of irksome observers.

In real life, with Russia being an authoritarian state, there are ways to thwart an observer. However, Yekaterinburg is a big city (1.5m people) and is considered something of a democratic oasis (relatively speaking). We have an openly "non-Putinist" city mayor, for instance. So there was nothing outrageous at my station. I was mainly thwarted by my own legal illiteracy. I was barred from taking pictures of the Books of Voters (before the start of voting) because they contain personal information. I know that this particular case is moot: according to some laws, I could take pictures but not make them public. According to some administrative rules, I could not even take pictures of these books. The books did not look much tampered to me, although there were several signatures "made by mistake" and crossed out, so I did not force the issue. I read in a Telegram chat later that some other observer drove his Committee Chairman to a fit by insisting on taking pictures of the Books.

Do they have any legal power to force the government to re-do the elections or is their job purely to increase transparency for the voters?

An observer's actions may result in a manual recount of votes, and/or in some or all ballots cast at this particular station being deemed "null and void". I haven't heard of an entire election being re-run due to observer action. There must be some legal framework for this, I guess, but that would be an incredibly tough thing to achieve in Putin's Russia. Of course an observer has no direct power, all should be achieved through making as many records as possible and as many complaints as possible.

The two ballot boxes at my voting station:

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My copy of the Voting Protocol (click for a larger-size version):

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P.S. The legal part of my answer is based largely on Observer's Guideline (Справочник Наблюдателя) published by Golos ("Voice/Vote"), an independent observer organization. I read it for a couple of days before the voting; and on Observer Wiki. The sources are in Russian.

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    It's incredible that someone with first-hand experience here posted an answer. And it's a good one! Once the bounty period opens, I'll be awarding one to you. – indigochild Mar 19 '18 at 16:07
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    @zibadawatimmy CopperKettle added various external links since you posted your comment. If you were to complain about the answer, would you consider your complaints addressed by them? – Philipp Mar 20 '18 at 14:58
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    Unless I'm missing something, the reporting structure described here appears to go up through government channels, which would not make this person an Independent observer, as the question was asking about. – T.E.D. Mar 22 '18 at 14:40
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    @T.E.D. - an observer is independent because they are sent by an independent candidate (not Putin). And they may act through the court system, which is (theoretically) an independent branch of government, and by going to the free media. And the Territorial Committee includes members of different parties and also has independent observers, so it (theoretically) has a degree of independence. How can I improve my answer (I have little spare time though, and the electoral knowledge is quickly eroding, for I'm a pharma translator)? – CopperKettle Mar 22 '18 at 15:34
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    Mostly a nuance of the language I think. We regularly have official "poll watchers" (aka: monitors) from the Republican and Democratic parties at most polling places in the US as well, so there's nothing weird about that. But when people talk about "independent observers" they are almost always referring to people completely independent of the US system, not the local partisan poll watchers. (And this answer has a score of over 150, so no, please do not delete it!) – T.E.D. Mar 22 '18 at 17:47
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As their name suggests, they're observers. They don't do much beyond observing - and filing complaints about what they see (see Copperkettle's much better and lengthier answer). Their point of their presence is to give an assessment of an election results' legitimacy through transparency.

If they observe an election, and report that fraud was rampant, then the newly "elected" may end up with little to no legitimacy - and social unrest to deal with, like during Putin's 2012 election, and a bad reputation on the international scene.

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They can do exactly what they are doing in this and other cases: Report on what they have observed.

The purpose of election observers is that any irregularities are at least known. There are always some irregularities in elections, even in the most advanced countries. The difference between them and some banana republic is the number and type of them. In Switzerland, a party might put a campaign stand too close to the voting office, or the ballot boxes might not be built entirely according to code. In Spain there were more serious incidents, and in some pseudo-democracies around the globe there might be ballot stuffing or people being turned away and prevented from voting.

The job of the observers is to observe and report on these, so that the public both in the country and outside can form an opinion about how the election was held and if the result can be considered fair or not.

So no, they do not have any power to force changes or re-elections. Their reports can cause such forces to appear, but not from the observers directly.

  • Your answer (and in particular the last paragraph) appears to be directly contradicted by CopperKettle's detailed and apparently informed answer. Do you have a source to back it up? – JBentley Mar 20 '18 at 1:53
  • The Declaration of Global Principles, one of the primary UN documents maybe? – Tom Mar 20 '18 at 8:00
  • There's a good summary from the Washington Post as well. Neither of them support the claim that observers have any power to force changes or re-elections. – Tom Mar 20 '18 at 8:03
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    But I don't see a contradiction. CopperKettle writes himself: "Of course an observer has no direct power, all should be achieved through making as many records as possible and as many complaints as possible." - which is basically the same thing I wrote in my last paragraph. – Tom Mar 20 '18 at 8:05
  • Do you have any specific incident in mind regarding Spain? Regarding Switzerland, tagesanzeiger.ch/schweiz/standard/… and tdg.ch/suisse/fraude-electorale-grand-conseil-veut-attendre/… (not the only funny story out of Valais/Wallis, incidentally). As it stands the implicit comparison between Switzerland and Spain seems to be little more than thinly veiled prejudice. – Relaxed Mar 20 '18 at 19:54

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