The social-media reaction was swift when eagle-eyed viewers of Mordovian public television spotted a gloved hand appearing to stuff ballots during coverage of Russia's nationwide vote on constitutional amendments enabling Putin to seek 12 more years in office.
An election observer declared that "all is very good" when it came to voting at polling station No. 568 in the Russian city of Saransk, with everything well-organized and no violations seen.
But eagle-eyed viewers of Mordovian Public Television noticed something amiss while watching the state channel’s coverage of the nationwide vote on constitutional amendments that open the door to President Vladimir Putin remaining in office until 2036.
Ten seconds into a clip of the June 29 news segment posted on the VK page Saransk Wall Of Shame, and just as a correspondent's voice-over talks about the fairness of the process, a blue-gloved hand is seen stuffing multiple ballots into a sealed ballot box.
Evidence of the apparent manipulation -- one of numerous incidents in the weeklong nationwide vote that wrapped up on July 1 and was marred by allegations of fraud -- was reportedly quickly removed from the television station's website, but was preserved for posterity on social media.
"The Internet remembers everything," Telegram channel Lepra said in posting an edited version of the clip.
Analysts said that Putin was eager for a high turnout and a strong "yes" vote in hopes that it would boost the legitimacy of the constitutional change allowing him to seek reelection in 2024 and 2030. Partial returns reported by the Central Election Commission on July 1 showed that the amendments would pass by a large margin according to official results, which Kremlin critics say are suspect.
The Public Chamber of Mordovia, a quasi-government body in the central Russian region 500 kilometers southeast of Moscow where the incident was captured by TV cameras on film, commented on the situation on June 30.
The chamber looked into the incident, it wrote, after receiving a citizen's complaint on its hotline. However, it determined that concerns that the video may have shown electoral interference were "unfounded."
Based on what it called an analysis by its Situation Center, including a conversation with the woman whose hands were seen putting multiple ballots into the ballot box, the chamber said "it turns out that there was no stuffing, the conclusions were premature."
It said that the woman had simply been helping her sick sister, who could not place her ballot in the ballot box on her own, and had requested permission to do so from members of the voting precinct's Election Commission.
That explanation suggested that the gloved woman cast two votes -- her own and her sister's -- but the footage appears to show a larger number of ballots being stuffed into the box.
All in all, the chamber said, no violations had been detected during the weeklong vote as of June 29.
"Let's proceed from the reality that neither on camera, nor off, there can be no ballot stuffing," state news agency RIA Novosti quoted Situation Center member Aleksei Tyurkin as saying on June 30.
The Saransk Wall Of Shame, following up on the regional Public Chamber's conclusion, was unconvinced, asking: "If it is not ballot stuffing, then why the hell was the segment urgently removed from the channel's website?"