20.03 Analytics

Two-stage Manipulation and The 'Deep Nation': How many people turned up to vote, and how many did not

The 22 million votes added to the count for Vladimir Putin represents the lower limit of fraud in the recent election. The adjusted result suggests that only about 55% of voters actually participated in the elections, not 77% as reported. Moreover, a significant portion of those who voted were mobilised through their workplaces and were accountable to their superiors, casting their votes on Friday, when, according to the CEC, 35% of voters went to the polls. Among those who participated in the election, according to Shpilkin's method-adjusted data, the vast majority (about 80%) voted for Putin. However, without ballot box stuffing and forced voting, turnout would have been low, undermining the illusion of 'popular support'. The scale of fraud in this election did not surpass the record of the 'popular vote' on constitutional amendments (27 million votes cast), but was 2.3 times greater than in the previous presidential election. 

The mechanics of authoritarian elections is a two-stage manipulation. The selection of candidates unattractive to active social groups should deter these groups from participating in the elections. As a result, supporters of the authorities are over-represented among those who vote, and opponents are under-represented. However, ballot stuffing in favour of the 'administrative' candidate makes the absence of non-candidates unnoticeable and increases the absolute result of the incumbent candidate, giving the non-candidates the impression of their own small number in the face of the overwhelming loyalist majority.

How many Russians took part in the election and voted for Putin?

According to calculations by independent analyst Ivan Shukshin, who used the so-called Shpilkin method, about 22 million fictitious votes were added to Putin's vote in the recent election. The same result, using the same method, was reached by data journalists from 'Important Stories'. 'Novaya Gazeta Europe' (also relying on Shpilkin) initially estimated the number of stuffed ballots at 31.6 million, but the calculation was based on the inclusion of electronic voting data in the ‘normal distribution base’, which was later corrected to the same figure of 22 million votes.

These figures only indicate the scale of fraud with paper ballots and do not account for 4.4 million votes cast through the 'Remote Electronic Voting' (REV) system. This system is not subject to any independent control, and even electoral commissions do not have access to it. Therefore, it is impossible to analyse its results using the Shpilkin method. According to official data, 89.1% of electronic votes were cast for Putin, i.e. 3.92 million votes. If we subtract the share of REV from the official turnout and Putin's result, falsification will account for 29% of paper ballots cast for Putin, almost one in three ballots.

If we assume that the total number of those who voted electronically has not been inflated, but only the share of those who voted for Putin has been, and then also subtract the 3 million votes attributed to the occupied territories, then the overall picture of the election looks as follows: instead of 87 million people voting (77% of eligible voters), there were probably around 60 million (about 56%), and Putin did not receive 76.3 million votes as announced, but around 50 million, which is a little over 40% of all voters.

Thus, despite the colossal scale of the ballot box stuffing, the distribution of votes does not change significantly. Taking these adjustments into account, among those who took part in the voting, about 80% still cast their votes for Putin. However, it should be noted that the Shpilkin method does not account for falsifications such as transferring votes from one candidate to another, so the overall figures of ‘false votes’ are likely higher in reality. This is especially the case because the Russian authorities are well acquainted with Shpilkin's methodology and could well have corrected the data by 'shifting' votes when they were entered into the database. In particular, Putin could have received some of Davankov's votes, the results of which, according to Shukshin's estimates, should have been close to 10%. If this were the case, Putin's result moves to 75%.

While the distribution of votes has not changed dramatically, the estimate of how many voters participated in the election changes significantly. Based on Shpilkin's method, it appears that just over 55% of voters participated in the election. At the same time, for these elections, Russia organised a truly massive system of forced voting, under the watch of the bosses at workers’ places of work (→ Golos: Administrative Mobilisation; Re:Russia: 80 by 80). At the end of the first day of voting, the Friday work day, the CEC reported that 35.4% of voters had turned up at polling stations, only slightly less than on the following two weekends. This anomaly can be explained by the fact that it was easier to organise mass 'workplace' control over the attendance of polling stations on a weekday. 

It is difficult to say what proportion of the 35% of those who voted on Friday were forced to do so, but it is likely to be significant. Thus, we can reasonably say that without the system of coercion, significantly less than 50% of voters would have taken part in the election. Maybe 45%, maybe 40%. Among them, the vast majority would still have voted for Putin, but their share relative to the total number of voters would have been significantly smaller. According to official data, two-thirds of all Russian voters voted for Putin; if the turnout (without ballot stuffing and forced transfers) had been closer to 40%, then with the 75% of votes given to Putin, the share of those who voted for Putin would have dropped to 35% of all voters. This may very well have been the case.

History of electoral fraud in Russia and the Shpilkin method

Electoral fraud is a ubiquitous practice among authoritarian regimes, but its study is hampered by the fact that such regimes usually hide their internal mechanisms quite reliably, restricting election observation and access to information.

The peculiarity of the Russian case lies in the fact that in the 1990s the political system in the country was competitive. Opposition parties led in the Duma elections (in 1993 and 1995), the outcome of the presidential election was only decided in the second round (1996), and Communist candidates in opposition to Yeltsin won regional gubernatorial elections in droves. The reverse process of autocratisation and deterioration of electoral practices at the regional level began at the very end of the 1990s, and at the federal level this took place under Putin. At the same time, electoral fraud was not a total, blanked phenomenon, but occurred in specific places. 

In the second half of the 1990s, fraud was observed almost exclusively in the national republics, where power was already vertically organised, relying on patronage networks that had survived since Soviet times. In the 2000s, the practice of ballot box stuffing began to spread more widely, but until the second half of the 2010s, the main cases of electoral fraud were concentrated in less than half of the country’s regions (→ Sergei Shpilkin: Tails and Peaks).

The fact that fraud is not spread over all polling stations, but has a punctual (discrete) nature, formed the basis of the now famous method of electoral statistics researcher Sergey Shpilkin. At those polling stations where there is no falsification, we see one level of turnout and the nature of the distribution of votes among participants. In those where there is falsification, the turnout is significantly higher, while the additional votes of imaginary participants are not distributed among the candidates, but go entirely to the 'administrative' candidate. Shpilkin called such votes 'anomalous'. If we plot the results from all stations as points on a plane, where the X-axis represents the turnout level and the Y-axis represents the result of the ruling candidate ('administrative' candidate or party), we will see a concentration in the zone of normal distribution and a tail going away from it to the upper right corner (growth of turnout and the share of votes of the 'administrative' candidate). These are the anomalies or falsifications, the proportion of which can be calculated.

The two diagrams below show the history of election fraud identified by the Shpilkin method over the last 25 years (in addition to presidential and Duma elections, the results of voting on constitutional amendments are also taken into account). The first shows the share of falsified votes in the votes cast for the 'administrative' candidate, while the second shows the official and adjusted data on turnout and votes for the main candidate.

Share of real and anomalous votes as a result of the 'administrative' candidate, 2000-2024, %

Official and adjusted turnout and result of the 'administrative' candidate, 2000-2024, %

graph 20.03 eng.png

​​As we can see, firstly, the role of fraud in the electoral results increased gradually. In 2000 it was insignificant, but by the elections of 2003-2004 the share of stuffed ballots in the results of the 'administrative' candidate (Putin and United Russia) reached 17%. However, this practice was most widespread in the Duma elections after 2007 and in the voting on constitutional amendments. Here, almost half of the votes allegedly cast in favour of the amendments and United Russia can be attributed to falsification. The real turnout in the Duma elections during this period was always below 50%, and United Russia's result was below 40% (on average 36% instead of 51% in the official data). 65% of those who voted did so in favour of the constitutional amendments, but despite a week-long voting period, this constituted approximately 43% of the total number of voters. At the same time, the number of regions with relatively honest counting (no more than 10% falsification) dropped to 16% (→ Sergei Shpilkin: The Tail Spins the Comet).

Two-stage manipulation: where does the 'deep nation' come from?

At the same time, the adjusted results show that in the presidential elections, with the exception of the last one, the 'administrative' candidate (Putin four times and Medvedev once) actually received an average of 62% instead of 67%, as it appeared from the official data. At first glance, the difference may seem inconsequential. This picture may disappoint those who believe that the elections in Russia are 'totally fabricated', but it allows us to understand the logic and mechanisms of electoral authoritarianism.

The authoritarian strategy of electoral manipulations consists of two transformations, and its central element is turnout. In the first stage of manipulation, with restricted access for candidates and parties to participate in elections, it discourages those dissatisfied with the selected candidates from coming to the polls. As a result, among those who do come, supporters of the 'administrative' candidate are overrepresented, while opponents are underrepresented. Of fundamental importance is who will and who will not go to the polls: it is the ratio between the two, rather than the real preferences of citizens, that determines the result of the voting. The fact that about 75% of those who came or were brought to the polls voted for Putin is not surprising: the candidates were chosen so that there was no one else to vote for. The question is what proportion they constitute in the population.

At the same time, those who did not vote will not see any traces of their absence in the voting results. This is the strategic significance of stuffed ballots for the 'administrative' candidate and is the second transformation of electoral manipulation. The replacement of absentees with fictitious (stuffed) votes gives the population — including the absentees — the impression of the existence of an absolute majority of loyalty — the hegemony of the 'deep nation’ - and makes them underestimate the number of absentees, this is people like them. The ballot stuffing doubles the disproportion achieved by the first stage of manipulation.

Arguably, the most striking example of such two-tier manipulation was the voting on constitutional amendments. While polls in 2020 showed roughly equal numbers of supporters and opponents of the amendments, 30% of all voters who supported them in the vote constituted two-thirds of those who turned out to vote (43% of voters). Meanwhile, another roughly 15% or so of voters who normally vote in presidential elections did not turn out. If they had come and voted 'against' the amendments, the shares of supporters and opponents would have ended up equal. However, the falsification machine added non-voters to the supporters of the amendments, who thus accounted for 78% in official data with a supposed turnout of 68%.

As the data corrected by Shpilkin's method show, with the exception of the 2000 elections, the average actual turnout at all presidential elections, including the last one, was 56%, while according to the official data it allegedly reached 69%. As a result, the official results of the presidential elections create the impression that about half of all Russian voters (51%) vote for Putin, although in reality, this share averages 37%. This difference may not seem significant unless one considers the fact that normally about 60% of the population participates in presidential elections in Russia.

The task of authoritarian elections is to ensure that about 15% of voters who would vote in a competitive election do not vote, and that 15% of those loyal voters who would not vote do. The votes of those who do not turn up are added to the latter. If we reverse the two-stage falsification, we get the following picture. 

According to official data, 77% of voters took part in the elections, 65% of all voters voted for Putin, and this gave him 84% of the turnout. Thanks to Shpilkin's method we know that, in reality, about 56% of voters took part in the election, 43% of all voters voted for Putin, and this gave him about 78% of the turnout. If we assume that 13% were brought in by force and 13% who wanted to vote for the alternative candidate did not turn up, then in the case of the non-appearance of the former and the appearance of the latter, the turnout would remain the same, but only 30% of all voters would vote for Putin, while 19% would have voted for the alternative (anti-war) candidate (Davankov's votes and those who potentially would have come). In this case, Putin would have won the election with about 54% of the vote, while the alternative candidate would have got 34%. The election result would have been the same, but the outcome would have been very different. Our notion of the hegemony of the 'deep nation' would have been significantly adjusted. And it would have created a very different political perspective.

Two-stage electoral manipulation