Was the Russian Election Fraudulent?

The Times today published a compelling report of first-hand observations of election fraud in Russia’s recent parliamentary elections. There are mounting protests; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced “serious concerns” about the election and called for a “full investigation of electoral fraud and manipulation.”

But what if those first-hand observations were anomalous? What if the outcome for Vladimir Putin‘s United Russia Party, as disappointing as it was for him, truly represents the will of the Russian people?

A reader named Sergei Burkov, who identifies himself as “ex-head of Google Russia R&D Center” writes in with the following information:

Dear Sirs,

A great Freakonomics story tip:

Russian physicist Sergey Shpilkin managed to statistically analyze the results of the Russian Parliamentary elections, identify fraudulent component, and deduct it, to come up with the estimates of untainted results: Putin’s United Russia got 34%, not 51% as officially reported.

Done the same way as Google identifies (and deducts) fraudulent AdWords clicks and Palantir catches terrorists and money launderers.

I asked Burkov if any of Shpilkin’s findings were in English (the links above are in Russian) — and how the analysis had been done so quickly; the elections were held on Sunday. 

His reply:

No, I don’t think there is an English version yet. He had his software ready. He analyzed past results: esquire.ru/elections when the new results arrived, he just plugged the new numbers in. Raw data is published online in near real time on the website of the official Russian election commission.

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  1. Joe010106 says:

    The funny thing about Russians is that they will always be Russians, corruption is in the eye of the beholder. While living in Egypt, in the 90s, the fine art of the payoff was alive and well. During a brief assignment to St Petersburg, the word corruption dosen’t exist, the one with the most Rupels usually wins. The good side one will always know where one stands with Vlad.

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  2. Ilya Segal says:

    Here is an upshot of the discussion in the Russian blogs. To infer the extent of the Russian election fraud from the publicly available data, it’s enough to apply high school level statistics and a bit of common sense. In “normal” elections, when we plot each party’s distribution of vote share in individual polling district, we should obtain a bell curve (i.e., Gaussian distribution). This is the normal result of adding up a large number of independent random effects. In contrast, look at the plot for the latest Russian election – the second graph on this page:
    On the horizontal axis is the share of a party’s vote, on the vertical axis is the number of polling districts with this share (within a 0.5% bin). Different colors represent different parties. All the curves except the brown curve look almost like bell curves (with unusual peaks at the low end, to be discussed below). What strikes the eye is the strange behavior of the brown curve, which represents United Russia – the “party of the power”. While its upward-sloping part follows a bell curve, to the right of its peak it fails to follow the same curve, and instead extends all the way to 100%. Also, notice what Russian bloggers call “Churov’s comb” (Churov is the Head of the Election Committee): local peaks at “round numbers” starting from 50% all the way to 100%. Their explanation is that the heads of some local election districts rewrote their results to meet the round targets demanded “from the top.” (The number of such “idiots” is estimated to be about 1,000.) When making up the results, they gave low numbers to the opposition parties, which explains those parties’ unusual peaks close to 0. The smooth downward-sloping part of the brown curve is attributed to more sophisticated falsification, such as making up non-round numbers, ballot stuffing, and the use of hired “carousel voters” who voted dozens of times with the help of fake IDs.
    These arguments are pretty convincing, as it seems pretty hard to come up with any alternative explanations for these curves. Together with the extensive reports of fraud from election observers, including videos, reports, and documents, the case is solid.

    In conclusion: if we believe the case that United Russia’s actual vote share does follow a “normal” bell curve, and if we believe that the district results with low United Russia shares were not falsified, our estimate of their true vote share is shown with the blue curve on the second graph here:
    Thus, if the election were not falsified, the vote for United Russia would have been about 32%, instead of the 50% officially reported.

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  3. Anton Nikolenko says:

    I’ve written a short post based partially on the same source.


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  4. Alex says:

    Here’s an analysis done in English: http://samarcandanalytics.com/?page_id=39

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  5. Steve Coleman says:

    An English version of Shpilkin’s analysis can be found in the English-language version of Gazeta.ru, “Elections improbability” (12/23/2011). These same questions were raised after the previous parliamentary election in 2007. But a subsequent analysis: Stephen Coleman. 2010. “Russian Election Reform and the Effect of Social Conformity on Voting and the Party System: 2007 and 2008.” Journal of the New Economic Society (Moscow), 5: 72-90.
    (In Russian as “??????? ?????????? ????????????? ??????? ? ??????? ?????????? ???????????? ?? ??????????? ? ????????? ???????: 2007 ? 2008.”) showed that the results can largely be explained by effects of social conformity, which has a stronger effect of Russian voters than in other countries. Although voting irregularities occurred, they did not have a substantial or material impact on the outcome. The article is available online at the website of the Russian New Economic Association, http://www.econorus.org or http://www.econorus.org/english.phtml.

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