Russian Election Fraud?

Moscow Times journalist Nabi Abdullaev wrote an interesting article a few days back reporting on statistical aberrations in the March 2 presidential elections.

Just as interesting: Moscow Times has killed the link to the story which initially worked, then went dead, and now leads to a story about Italian elections.

The conspiracy theorist in me finds that very suspicious.

Luckily, quick-thinking Amitabh Chandra and the students in his econometrics course at the Kennedy School of Government downloaded the article (and if you can read Russian, here is a link to the blog post that the article is based upon).

What I find somewhat strange about the whole thing is that Medvedev won in a landslide … why bother rigging things?

Addendum: At the time of this post, the Moscow Times link once again led back to the Abdullaev article.

Monday, April 14, 2008. Issue 3882. Page 1.
Medvedev Won by Curious Numbers
By Nabi Abdullaev
Staff Writer

There are numerous curiosities to be found in the official returns of the March 2 presidential election.

At a polling station in the Dagestani town of Kizilyurt, for example, more than 700 voters cast their ballots, but not a single one voted for President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, who captured more than 90 percent of the vote in the republic and more than 70 percent nationwide.

While one could imagine a neighborhood where antipathy toward Medvedev runs aberrantly deep, one blogger has crunched official election results and found strikingly anomalous voter behavior across the country.

Analyzing official returns on the Central Elections Commitee Web site, blogger Sergei Shpilkin has concluded that a disproportionate number of polling stations nationwide reported round numbers — that is, numbers ending in zero and five — both for voter turnout and for Medvedev’s percentage of the vote.

The statistical anomalies offer mathematical evidence of election fraud in Medvedev’s victory, math-savvy bloggers, election analysts and economists said.

“This is an unnatural distribution, and it points to blatant manipulation of numbers,” said Andrei Buzin, who heads the Interregional Association of Voters and has a doctoral degree in math and physics.

In most elections, one would expect turnout and returns to follow a normal, or Gaussian, distribution — meaning that a chart of the number of polling stations reporting a certain turnout or percentage of votes for a candidate would be shaped like a bell curve, with the top of the bell representing the average, median, and most popular value.

But according to Shpilkin’s analysis, which he published on his LiveJournal blog,, the distribution both for turnout and Medvedev’s percentage looks normal only until it hits 60 percent.

After that, it looks like sharks’ teeth. The spikes on multiples of five indicate a much greater number of polling stations reporting a specific turnout than a normal distribution would predict.

A suspicious voter might say polling officials stuffed ballot boxes to achieve a nice, clean percentages like 65, 70, 75, 80 and so on.

The analysis and results mirror Shpilkin’s study of the Dec. 2 State Duma elections, in which he found a similar predominance of round numbers both for voter turnout and for the percentage of the vote captured by pro-Kremlin party, United Russia.

Local election officials were clearly thinking in round numbers while rigging turnout and Medvedev’s percent of the vote, said economist Mikhail Delyagin, head of the Institute of Globalization Problems.

While the spikes on round numbers certainly reveal manipulations, they also demonstrate “an administrative demand” for a specific turnout to be reported to superiors, Shpilkin said in e-mailed comments.

Furthermore, according to Shpilkin’s analysis, the higher the turnout, the higher Medvedev’s percentage of the returns — a correlation not seen in the returns of the other three candidates: Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky; Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov; and Andrei Bogdanov, who heads the tiny Democratic Party of Russia.

Buzin said this correlation clearly indicated ballot stuffing on a massive scale, though Shpilkin and Delyagin said it was feasible that where turnout was higher — whether due to voter enthusiasm, coercion or herd mentality — voters may have been more inclined to vote for Medvedev.

A written request to the Central Elections Commission for comment on the anomalies was not answered in time for publication. In February the commission would not comment on similar anomalies in the Duma elections.

Arkady Lyubarev, a researcher with Independent Institute of Elections, said he had tried on numerous occasions to discuss statistical anomalies in election results with commission officials but was repeatedly snubbed.

“They are not mathematicians, they are legal experts,” Lyubarev said. “And from a legal perspective, you cannot use these anomalies to officially challenge the results of an election.”

Given the similar anomalies in both the Duma and presidential elections, officials have either not learned how to manipulate returns to make them more plausible, do not care about public opinion, or both, said Sergei Shulgin, an analyst with the Institute of Open Economics who studies elections.

“The repetition of the anomalous spikes after they were reported in the media and widely discussed in the Russian blogosphere [after the Duma elections] confirms that there is no feedback between election officials and the public,” Shulgin said.

Shulgin, who has crunched numbers for national elections dating back to the mid-1990’s, said statistical distribution for voter turnout in Russian elections was becoming increasingly aberrant.

With each national election, the downward slope for turnout in what should be a bell curve rises higher and higher, Shulgin said. In Medvedev’s victory, it became more or less a straight line peppered with spikes on round numbers.

This trend, Shulgin said, indicates that in areas where turnout is traditionally strong — such as rural areas and ethnic republics — more and more voters are showing up at polling stations with each new election.

This does not necessarily indicate ballot stuffing, Shulgin said. Intense efforts by officials to lure or coerce voters to polling stations could be an important factor as well, he said.

“In this presidential election, it looks like there was an order to get every voter out, and it worked,” Shulgin said.

Meanwhile, what happened at Polling Station No. 682 in the Dagestani town of Kizilyurt remains unclear.

According to the Central Elections Commission web site, of the 766 ballots cast at the polling station, not one went to Medvedev. What’s more, Bogdanov received 95 percent of the votes.

The numbers stand in stark contrast to those for all of Dagestan, where Bogdanov got 0.15 percent of the vote and Medvedev 91.92 percent. Nationwide, Bogdanov received 1.3 percent compared with 70.28 percent for Medvedev.

Buzin suggested that Dagestani election officials may have accidentally swapped Medvedev’s and Bogdanov’s figures as they filed their reports.

A spokesman for Dagestan’s elections commission was incredulous when told of the results at the Kizilyurt polling station, despite the fact they are posted on the Central Elections Commission’s web site.

“It is a provocation,” he said without elaborating.


Voting irregularities can be attributed to overzealous party leaders at the local level acting independently. Some outlying Russian republics are only nominally under central control.
Dagestan, which is cited repeatedly in the article, is an Islamic Replublic and the venue of a low-level guerilla war.


I live in Moscow, and it seems the Putin regime felt the need to rig the election out of extreme paranoia that "western forces" would stage a revolution much like those in Ukraine and Georgia. Russians erroneously believe those revolutions had no popular support, but were completely orchestrates by the CIA, etc. Why do you think Russia's been cracking down on foreign NGOs? They assume they're fronts for dissident activities.

Also interesting that Medvedev won with 70.28% of the vote. That's really high, but still slightly less than Putin's 71.3% in 2004. Coincidence? I think not.

I also highly recommend Clifford Levy's great NYTimes article on vote-rigging in Nizhny Novgorod:

gene n.

I think the reason is simple for someone who grew up under Soviet system to understand:
1. Medvedev was assured of victory from the start, but he did need a large turnout to reinforce appearance of legitimacy.
2. Therefore regional leaders were asked by the center to organize large turnouts of voters.
3. By organizing large turnouts by whatever means regional leaders were showing their lyalty to the center, which is key to their survival.

It's not about elections so much as about demonstrating loyalty by regions to the center, it's more powerfull than a popular referendum, it's what keeps the federation together.

Kevin H

My stab at why rig even if Medvedev was going to win anyways: a landslide election looks much better for a facade of national unity than a close election.

Jake Van Alstyne

It makes me wonder... if an election were fraudulently conducted, what path would those aware of it have to take in order to fix it? Is that even possible? In our own 2004 Bull**** election, we foolishly handed the decision to the supreme court. It seems to me that if the people who are supposed to be conducting a fair election have been compromised, then what source could you turn to? I wouldn't trust the courts either. Manipulating votes is a terrible thing, given that its the only thing that gives a democratic society any integrity.


Isn't the point that you don't know he won in a landslide if it was rigged? Maybe it was very close...


My mother-in-law told my wife that at her factory, someone was 'assigned' to determine who everyone was going to vote for. I didn't get more detail than that, but she had resigned herself to the fact that the whole thing was a sham, and no better than any 'elections' they'd had in Soviet times.

Jim Walsh

Nixon had the 1972 election in the bag, but still felt the need to employ 'plumbers.'


That's why thugs are better than bureaucrats in rigging elections assuming there are no journalists to take notes/photos.


I had always thought that one indicium of cooked numbers was a disproportionately low (not high) number of multiples of five, because people who make up numbers think numbers ending in 0 and 5 looks "suspicious."


Levitt asked: "What I find somewhat strange about the whole thing is that Medvedev won in a landslide ... why bother rigging things?"

I can think of a few reasons:

1. Force of habit.

2. To make clear that elections can always be rigged.

3. Because they can.

4. To keep election-riggers in practice.

Those are just the few reasons that leap out at me, I could probably come up with a dozen more if I give it 5 minutes' more thought.


this is like the kid who cheats on an exam and gets 100%- duh- they need an economist on the rigging staff who can suggest the clever 72% margin

The Darkness

Why rig the election? Out of principle of course. The Russian's couldn't ACTUALLY give a voice to the people.


Who needs statistics when there are videos of plain and simple bulletin fraud?
And who needs fraud when the Putin's regime support is so high among commoners?

I've got no idea.


The discussion of the Russian blog post you mention says that
1. It was not number of votes for the candidate but the total number of bulletins that was rigged.
2. It was not the number of bulletins given at the electoral posts but the number of bulletins given "outside of electoral posts".

I do not know Russian electoral law so I can't say whether people given those bulletins "outside the electoral posts" were in any position to vote freely. But it was not a direct falsification of the number of votes that Medvedev got, though it might have skewed the numbers. Now, if only we could have similar data for US....