Russian election: how a visit to a polling station led to my personal data being leaked online


I I knew I was reporting a sensitive election patch. I never imagined it would end with my personal data being leaked onto the internet in an apparent act of intimidation.

The polling stations in Tatarstan, 450 miles east of Moscow, are traditionally where the Kremlin majorities are formed. The region reliably displays some of the country’s most notable returns. In 2016, for example, he claimed 79% participation with 85% of the vote for the Kremlin United Russia party (against national figures of 48% and 54%).

While authorities might suggest this is the result of an ecstatically contained electorate, there are conflicting explanations.

Polling station 2822 in Osinovo, on the border between the capital Kazan and rural Tatarstan, is an ideal place for possible electoral manipulation. It is far enough from the city that it is difficult for the opposition forces to reliably send many monitors. Mentally, it’s also a far cry from the urban values ​​of electoral democracy, meaning that local election officials are generally more obliging.

Such considerations – and official turnout ratios three times higher than those observed by independent observers – were the reason I went there on Saturday, the second day of parliamentary elections.

It didn’t take long before the games started.

Once I got to the voting booth, I was accredited, but reluctantly, by the chairman of the electoral commission. The official took my passport, made a recording – and, most importantly, a photocopy – and then asked to see a copy of my migration documents (it’s not even a legal requirement). She left for the next room for what appeared to be a series of urgent phone calls.

In the meantime, I started talking to Gulnaz Ravilova, the young Democratic Party candidate Yabloko, who first made allegations of fraud.

The 22-year-old is, in the eyes of local authorities, a pesky “extremist” who does not understand. Politically active since the age of 14 – she took part in protests against the slaughter of stray animals ahead of the 2013 World University Games in Kazan – Ms Ravilova refused to resign even facing prosecution for alleged links with the now criminalized structures of the enemy and opposition Kremlin leader, Alexei Navalny. She denies the charges.

We called the chairman of the elections committee and asked for a recount and to see the voting records. She refused to speak

Gulnaz Ravilova, candidate of the Yabloko Democratic Party

She told me what she saw on the first day of the poll, Friday. Under the electoral rules, the chairman of the commission is obliged to provide the turnout figures twice – at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. When she first did it, the numbers roughly matched the image Ms Ravilova and her colleagues had recorded. But the 8 p.m. returns – 617 voters – were more than three times the 185 who would have voted.

“Our jaws dropped when we saw the evening numbers,” Ms. Ravilova said. “We called the chair of the elections committee and asked for a recount and to see the voting records. She refused to speak.”

The three-day ballot introduced changes to the electoral process compared to previous years. Now, at the end of each day, votes are sealed in “secure envelopes” before being transferred to a supposedly secure safe.

A second safe contains the ballots and records of the people who voted. The particular problem at polling station 2822 was that this second “safe” was kept out of sight of the cameras in an adjacent room. Another concern was that this was not a safe in the usual sense, but a rickety wooden cabinet that could easily be opened if needed.

Oliver Carroll’s passport details were shared on a public channel on the Telegram messaging app. The Independent has fuzzy details to protect privacy

(Oliver Carroll / The Independent)

After complaints and reports in national newspapers, the regional electoral commission ordered the safe to be moved to the main hall on Saturday morning. It is not known exactly what happened next. Opposition watchers say no one was ready to move the safe, so it appears they did it themselves. An observer for the ruling United Russia party said The independent opposition candidates moved the safe “violently”, knocking part of the cabinet door off its hinges.

I was comparing notes, reporting, and talking to the different parties, when half a dozen serious-looking men appeared in the room.

The men wore almost identical very low-key black jackets, blue jeans, and pointy leather shoes. They were looking in my direction, motionless and emotionless. I was told that one of the men was the deputy chief of the mysterious “Center E”, a local security agency tasked with combating extremism but generally more interested in dissent issues.

One by one, other strange visitors began to fill the voting room. They included new “monitors”, also stocky men, identifying with the “Communists of Russia” party, a bogus spoiler party allegedly set up by the authorities. Then a woman from United Russia arrived. They smiled at each other and nodded, then at the group of men now huddled in the adjoining room.

“You’re not going to stage tricks, are you?” Ravilova asked one of the bulky-looking men. “Girl, I swear on my heart, I won’t,” came her almost flirtatious response. ” And you ? Are you going to stage tricks? “

The next visitor to enter the room – a tall, young woman – walked directly towards me. She identified herself as a reporter for Tatar Info, a state media agency. “I’m here to talk to you, Oliver. Do you want to speak to me in English? To Raw-shun? I asked her how she could know my name. She offered no response.

During the day on Saturday, the opposition team made several unsuccessful attempts to inspect voter registers. The drama reached a crescendo just before the polling stations closed at 8 p.m. Out of the blue, an independent electoral official showed up, claiming to have a mandate from the regional electoral commission. He has declared his intention to film the opening of the ballot boxes and the counting of voters.

An information board showing live streaming from polling stations

(Mikhail Japaridze / Tass)

The man’s story may have been genuine, but he didn’t have the papers to prove it. He was therefore blocked by the army of loyal “election monitors”, who formed a wall between him, his camera, the ballot box and the officials. Scuffles then began to break out; at one point it seemed like everyone in the room was screaming. The uninvited manager then attempted to fight his way through the fray for himself and his GoPro.

“Police! Police!” cried one of the loyal Kremlin monitors. “He’s touching my butt!

A woman in her 60s with red hair and large silver earrings hissed at the bustling crowd. “And they say we are even thinking of letting them get closer to power,” she said, referring to the opposition. The woman is one of the allegedly independent members of the official polling station election commission.

Just when the dramatic day seemed to come to a natural conclusion – the process of putting papers in secure envelopes to keep them safe overnight – I was alerted to a series of alarming social media posts. .

One article showed a photo of my own photocopied passport posted on a public channel in the Telegram Messenger app, with personal details. Another suggested that I came to Tatarstan to tarnish the reputation of the local elections. The channel would be connected to local authorities.

There seemed to be only two possible sources for the leak: my hotel, which copied the passport to fill out migration papers, or the chairman of the committee and associated security officials. But the copy taken by the hotel, which I have since inspected, is of a much higher resolution than the one posted online.

It is difficult to understand the precise logic that leads to the disclosure of my personal data, falling as it does outside the range of rational, moral and legal frameworks. Maybe it was an attempt to alert people to pay attention to me. Perhaps this was a local interpretation of an obvious trend in Moscow: that foreign journalists are no longer welcome as they once were. Perhaps it was the frustration to see part of a major voting machine shut down.

On this latter front, my unexpected visit may have played a disruptive role. On the second day of the elections, President Guzel Rubanova announced that 139 clearly reasonable voters had been registered – almost exactly the numbers recorded by independent observers, and less than a quarter of the disputed number posted the day before.

The reduced numbers did not really affect the turnout across Tatarstan. That climbed to 57.5%, the sixth-best number out of 85 regions across the country. Who knows where we’ll be at 8 p.m. later today, Sunday, as voting in Russia’s already highly controversial election comes to an end.


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