NGO Says Absentee Ballots Moving Fast

There is a campaign under way to coerce voters into applying for absentee ballots in what independent election monitoring agencies say is evidence that employers are heeding tacit calls from federal and regional authorities to ensure higher turnout in Sunday's State Duma elections.

The number of absentee ballots distributed so far, allowing people to vote outside the district in which they are registered, is already three times higher than during the 2003 Duma elections, Golos, the country's largest independent national election observer organization, said in a statement distributed Thursday. Absentee ballot schemes are a popular method for rigging election results.

"The signs of coercion to apply for absentee ballots are numerous and come from all over Russia," Golos said in the statement.

Central Elections Committee chief Vladimir Churov has estimated turnout for Sunday at about 60 percent, above the 55.75 percent figure registered in 2003.

Golos, a nongovernmental organization funded by U.S. and EU donors, among others, said it suspected that employers and bosses were forcing employees to receive the ballots to ensure that they actually vote, in order to gain a higher turnout. Such pressure would violate election law.

The NGO reported that its election hotline had received 1,130 calls, with 43 percent of them reporting illegal campaigning practices and 51 percent complaining of officials abusing their office for electoral purposes.

Another hotline, operated by the Association of the Council of NGOs for the Protection of Citizens' Electoral Rights, has received 15,000 calls reporting alleged campaign violations, Interfax reported. The association has also voiced concern over absentee ballots.

"The boom in applications for absentee ballots cannot help but draw our attention," council chairman Andrei Przhezdomsky said, Interfax reported. Przhezdomsky also attributed the increasing demand to employers' efforts "to stimulate turnout or even, somehow, control it."

Federal and regional election officials said they had been issuing more absentee ballots but attributed the rise to increased interest on the part of people who might be away from their home districts Sunday. Central Elections Commission member Yevgeny Kolyushin said he believed the Golos statement concerning the ballots could be accurate.

"This year, a much larger number of absentee ballots has been issued than during the last elections," Kolyushin said.

The Sverdlovsk region's elections commission said Thursday that it had already issued 30,000 absentee ballots and had been forced to order another 10,000 to cope with the increased demand, Interfax reported.

Absentee ballots were used to inflate vote totals in the first and second rounds of the December 2004 presidential elections in Ukraine. Voters would receive multiple ballots and then cast them at different polling stations. Police in one Russian region have already reported the confiscation of absentee ballots that had been purchased from the individuals to whom they had been issued.

Police officers of the Komi republic said Thursday that they had confiscated 60 absentee ballots "purchased on the territory of the Kirov region," Interfax reported. The police did not specify who had bought the ballots.

Civil Control, another NGO, said Thursday that it had received some 400 complaints from citizens, candidates and parties, most of them alleging abuse of office in relation to the campaign or unfair media coverage, the organization's co-chair, Alexander Brod, said Thursday, Interfax reported.

Staff Writer Natalya Krainova contributed to this story.