Special Report Of The IFES Moscow Office On State Duma Committee Hearings On Electoral Law Reform Tuesday 4 February 1997
On Tuesday 4 February, representatives of the IFES Moscow attended hearings conducted by Committee on Legislative Reforms of the State Duma Committee on the topic of electoral law reform. After opening comments by the Chairman of the Committee, Lukianov, presentations were made by Alexander Veshniakov, Head of the Intra-Governmental Working Group on Electoral Reform and Secretary of the Central Election Commission and by Victor Sheinis, State Duma Deputy and member of the Committee and the Working Group. Following their presentations, comments and proposals were accepted from the floor. Attendees to the hearing included members and staffers of the Central Election Commission, State Duma deputies and their staffers, justices of the Supreme and Constitutional courts, election officials from the Subjects of the Russian Federation, representatives of think tanks and public policy institutes, and political activists. What appears below is a summary of the proceedings which supplements the attached overview of the Working Group's draft report on proposed electoral law reform as well and the full report. A list of the members of the Working Group is also attached.
Presentation of Alexander Veshniakov
Secretary Veshniakov introduced the general findings of the Working Group and reviewed a number of the proposals presented in the draft report. He indicated that amendment of the Voter's Rights Act (Federal Law on Guarantees of Electoral Rights of the Citizens of the Russian Federation) was necessary as certain gaps and inconsistencies were discovered during the course of administering federal parliamentary and presidential elections and as this law forms the framework for Russia's electoral system. In addition, he noted the necessity of passing some supplementary stand-alone legislation to strengthen existing elections laws, including legislation on campaign financing, the State Automated System of Elections, and on political parties. Mr. Veshniakov also proposed the possibility of changes to the Russian Constitution in the interests of protecting voter's and candidate's rights during federal, regional, and municipal elections. Among the issues and proposals highlighted by Mr. Veshniakov:
1. The issue of how to ensure periodic elections was among the top priorities of the Working Group. The postponement of elections in Primorski Krai and Kamchatka as well as the decision not to hold any elections in Stavropol in 1997 were presented as only the latest cases of regional authorities postponing or canceling anticipated elections. The preoccupation of the Working Group - as with those attending the hearing - remains the question of what entity can be trusted with the responsibility of «calling» elections rather than with requiring legal changes that would automatically set a date in the law, eg. elections for said office will be held every four years on the second Tuesday of November.
2. The Working Group is also concerned about the independence of subordinate level election commissions from executive authorities in the regions and has proposed a number of changes in the formation and technical support of election commissions, including a greater role for political parties in the nomination of commission members, increasing the number of legislative appointees to commissions from 1/2 to 2/3s (consistent with the federal formula for appointing the CEC), providing for a separate line item in Subject budgets for election commissions so that moneys can be provided directly to commissions rather than through executive authorities, and establishing Territorial Election Commissions (TECs) as permanent entities (perhaps with reduced staffs between elections) to reinforce their independence from local administrations. The later recommendation is also seen as feasible given the responsibility of TECs to handle inquiries and complaints of candidate representatives, observers, the media, and voters following federal elections and the near continual conduct of regional and municipal elections through the end of the century.
3. The recommendation has also been made that the rights of the Central Election Commission to pro-actively enforce compliance with the Voting Rights Act during regional and municipal elections be increased.
4. Considerable emphasis has also been placed on enhancing the role of political parties in the electoral process. Specifically, the Working Group is proposing that the anomalous electoral associations be replaced in favor of political parties as a means of nominating candidates. The State Duma was challenged to pass its law on political parties, which has long been dormant within the lower house, although Veshniakov noted that the Working Group had developed a definition on political parties and would attempt to use this as the basis for amending federal laws absent any stand-alone legislation.
5. The inadequacy of the signature collection process as a means of qualifying candidates for access to the ballot was also addressed. Proposals for expanding liability for falsification of signature petitions, establishment of an upper as well as a lower threshold for the number of signatures which can be submitted for consideration, the introduction of a threshold for the number of invalid signatures (after which no further signatures will be considered and the petition will be automatically disqualified), and the elimination of signature collection requirements for political entities with legislative mandates and incumbent candidates were forwarded. The possibility of introducing cash deposits was also considered.
6. With regard to the election campaign, means of improved compliance and enforcement of campaign financing and equity in the mass media were also discussed. The adoption of separating legislation on campaign financing and political parties was endorsed as a means of better facilitating monitoring of fundraising and expenditures be political parties and candidate organizations prior to the formal registration of candidates and establishment of «electoral funds» with the State Bank. Is was also suggested that stand-alone legislation might also be required for political communication. The issue of who pays for «free time» on State media, the election commission or the media outlet was also discussed and it was proposed that payment expectations be clarified in law.
7. The Working Group also acknowledged some problem with the duplication of names in the voter registry as a result of the freedom of movement within Russia and the liberal rights of voters to cast ballots in alternative locations whether in a variety of health and rest facilities or through use of absentee voting certificates. It is recommended that the use of the SAS be expanded to allow for computerization of voter lists and «flagging» of duplicate entries.
8. Te need to improve guidance for and support of voting abroad as well as alternative means of collecting results from remote sites was also acknowledged.
Presentation of Deputy Sheinis
1. Mr. Sheinis began his presentation by reiterating the need to reinforce the role of political parties and to establish some type of definition that would qualify some of the existing electoral associations as political parties and distinguish them from public associations without a political mandate as well as from «transient» political organizations. He noted that in 1993, thirteen «electoral associations had participated in the parliamentary elections and by 1995, there were forty-three. He asked the attendees to consider how many «electoral associations could be expected to compete in the 1999 elections? At the same time, he cautioned against limiting the nominating process only to political parties as many can «sit on the same couch» or at least «around the same table» and so endorsed the continued right of voters to nominate candidates.
2. With regard to the collection of signatures, it was conceded that despite the wide-spread dislike of the signature collection process both by political activists and by election officials, it was likely that proposed alternatives could be even less popular. It was suggested that alternative means of ballot access be tested on a pilot bases in various Subjects for regional legislative elections slated for 1997. Sheinis emphasized that a way must be found to eradicate the «business» of collecting signature for any candidate at a price as well as the «star effect» on lists whereby the top three candidates on the list (whose names appear on the ballots) have no intent to serve in the Parliament and do not accept their mandates. It was proposed that heavy penalties be applied to such persons or that those mandates be revoked and redistributed proportionally. Currently, when deputies do not accept their mandates, the names appearing on the list are simply «bumped up» and another representative of the electoral association fills the seat. He also acknowledged the problem of «list switching» whereby the list of candidates approved by the election commission is not the same one showed to voters during the signature collection process.
3. Sheinis also reintroduced some aspects of the public control bill which he sponsored last Spring but which was not passed into law. In particular, he endorsed the institution of an automatic recount in a randomly selected number of precincts (2-3%) as a means of discouraging or detecting vote fraud.
4. The Working Group's recommendations concerning independence of lower level commissions were reinforced, specifically reducing the number of members of lower level commissions appointed by executive authorities to 1/3 consistent with the federal formula for nominating the CEC and suggesting that some mechanism be considered for making deliberative members of election commissions eligible for decisive voting membership. In addition, he requested that some means of disbanding commissions be adopted provided the commissions be found guilty of election violations by a court of law.
5. Sheinis also raised concern about the wide-spread use of mobile ballot boxes in Russia, particularly be people who are not technically «in need» of mobile balloting services. He proposed that at least 2 members of election commissions be required to accompany ballot boxes along with observers to voter's homes and the deadline by which applications for mobile balloting must be received be moved up.
6. The problem of military voting in regional and municipal elections was also addressed. Currently, soldiers are required to vote that the location of their military base (temporary residence), which in regional and municipal elections skews their impact on local politics and dilutes the vote of residents living permanently in the district. The question is how to rectify this problem without robbing soldiers of their right to representation.
7. The Working Group's recommendation to improve enforcement capabilities to ensure the sanctions are applied to those violating the law. Sheinis also suggested that the right to call elections invalid and the basis upon which they could be invalidated should be liberalized.
8. Finally, a proposal has been forwarded that the election laws of the Russian Federation be codified to ensure consistency and to better clarify which rules apply to all elections and which apply only to specific elections as well as to confirm when exceptions to the rules are permitted.
Comments from the Floor
Among the comments and proposals raised by attendees to the hearing were the following:
- The currently election legislation has gaps as well as inconsistencies and contradictions not only with laws but between them which makes it impossible to administer uniformly.
- There is currently no relationship between the deputies and their constituencies and therefore no accountability.
- More penalties must be introduced to reduce if not eliminate unethical behavior by candidates.
- There should be total State subsidization of campaign financing. Eliminating the option for private money will eliminate violations in this area and lead to better equity among the candidates.
- It is incorrect to suggest that election commissions are administering regional and municipal elections. Executive authorities are running these elections. At least 50% of the chairmen of these commissions are headed by people from the executive or administrative authority (source of statistic unknown).
- The CEC must have an increased supervisory and enforcement mandate of the Subject Election Commissions.
- As an indication of the extent of our campaign financing problems we can look to the recent Chechen elections. In this case a foreign organization administered elections on Russian soil (reference to OSCE mission in Chechnya).
- It is impossible to provide State subsidies to all candidates, particularly given the number of candidates currently running for elective office in Russia.
- There must be a system of routine campaign period reporting by political entities and candidate organization on campaign contributions and expenditures.
- The Voting Rights Act must have Constitutional status to ensure compliance by all Subjects of the Russian Federation.
- There is a profound lack of understanding about which laws take precedent in the current environment. I actually attended a court case where administrators sincerely believed that a 1991 law on elections to local administrations to precedence over the 1993 Voting Rights Act.
- Deliberative voting members of election commissions should be required to sign all decisions of election commissions including the final protocol of results.
- Ballots should be numbered (like currency) to improve ballot security and accountability.
- It seems to me that the proposals being made by the Working Group encourage maximum centralization which flies in the face of the concept of federalism (Supreme Court Justice).
- Why do we have to force political party development in this country? Is it worth it?
- Where is the logic in saying that regions cannot introduce additional requirements for candidates to office, ex. language, residency, or age requirements, when the CEC is suggesting that candidates be required to make cash deposits to qualify?
- I believe that we are creating in the CEC a «super ministry.» Frankly, I think we should revisit the whole issues of election commission status.
- In some Western democracies, if a party is inactive or fails to win a mandate during a certain timeframe, their registration is withdrawn.
- At least 30% of election commission members should be appointed by parties winning mandates in the election.
- All articles pertaining to elections, whether in election laws, the criminal or administrative codes, the civil code, media laws, etc. should be brought together under one code. This would improve consistency, and would be less redundant.
- We to we have to exclude labor collectives from nominating candidates? They have something to contribute.
- Let's eliminate turn-out thresholds.
The Working Group indicated that it will complete recommended changes to the Voting Rights Act in the near future. Drafting is currently underway for new legislation on campaign financing and the State Automated System of elections.