Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

United Russia Accused in Cold Ball Game

Itar-TassVolodin selecting the ball that gave United Russia the 10th spot on the ballot.
An opposition party has accused United Russia of using a cold ball in an attempt to steal first place on the ballot in next month's State Duma elections.

Anton Bakov, campaign manager for the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, said he uncovered the ruse at Wednesday's lottery to determine the order of parties on the ballot.

In the lottery, conducted by the Central Elections Commission, representatives from each of the 11 parties on the ballot took a plastic ball out of a transparent container. Each ball contained a number.

Bakov said that before the drawing began, he reached into the container to feel the balls -- prompting angry shouts from elections commission staff and from a senior United Russia official -- and found that one ball was colder than the others.

Bakov alleged that the ball had been refrigerated in advance so the United Russia representative would know which one to select to secure the No. 1 spot. "Evidently they wanted to take first place," Bakov said in a telephone interview.

United Russia -- expected to win in a landslide in the Dec. 2 election with President Vladimir Putin leading its ticket -- ended up with the penultimate spot at No. 10. The Agrarian Party captured the coveted top spot, a ballot position widely believed to garner more votes for its occupant.

In regional parliamentary elections held in March, United Russia had better luck, ending up at the top of eight out of the 14 regional ballots. The chances of such an outcome occurring naturally were only 1 in 3,000, according to an open letter signed by five scientists after the ballots were unveiled in February.

United Russia and the Central Elections Commission vehemently denied the refrigeration of any balls.

Anna Ovchinnikova, an assistant to election chief Vladimir Churov, called the allegation "absolute raving."

United Russia spokeswoman Yana Sidorenko also called the claim "raving," noting that the draw was televised. "You can see how everything happens," Sidorenko said.

Indeed, television stations showed State Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Volodin, a senior United Russia official, select the ball that gave his party the No. 10 spot.

But Bakov believes that Volodin was initially planning to take the cold ball -- giving United Russia the No. 1 spot -- until he was scared off by Bakov's unexpected snooping.

Before the cameras started rolling, Bakov said, he saw the balls were unguarded and started to feel them, prompting an angry reaction from Volodin.

"I began touching them, and Volodin started to shout, 'Bakov is touching the balls!' Then other people tried to stop me," Bakov said.

Reached by telephone, Roman Chuichenko, a spokesman for Volodin, dismissed Bakov's story.

Being first on the ballot is important for parties, said Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst with the Panorama think tank.

"It gives parties an extra 1 or 2 percentage points," Pribylovsky said. "Then pensioners and little old ladies don't have to strain themselves to vote for them."

Pribylovsky said he found Bakov's claims credible. He added that the scheme might have originated with a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel in which a lottery is rigged the same way.

The alleged scheme has another precedent: the "frozen envelope" conspiracy that emerged from the National Basketball Association's 1985 draft.

Georgetown center Patrick Ewing was the best college player in the country going into the draft, and according to the conspiracy theory -- repeatedly scoffed at by the NBA -- the league wanted him to play for the New York Knicks, who were struggling in an important market. The theory goes that league officials froze the envelope containing the Knicks' logo to ensure the team got the No. 1 pick.

The order of parties on the Duma ballot, from top to bottom, is the Agrarian Party, Civil Force, the Democratic Party, the Communist Party, SPS, the Social Justice Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, A Just Russia, Patriots of Russia, United Russia and Yabloko.

Curiously, the parties whose names come first and last in Russian alphabetical order -- the Agrarian Party and Yabloko -- are also the first and last on the ballot, respectively.