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Of Car Trunks And Tree Stumps: As Russians Vote On Putin's Future, A Chaotic Rush To Boost Turnout

Residents of a remote Khanty cattle camp take part in early voting on the constitutional amendments on June 25.
Residents of a remote Khanty cattle camp take part in early voting on the constitutional amendments on June 25.

MOSCOW -- Polling stations have sprung up in car trunks and parked buses, on tree stumps and park benches, on soccer pitches and inside tents. Daily raffles are offering prizes to all who cast a ballot, whether voting "yes" or "no." And there's no shortage of hints as to which one they should choose.

As Russians vote on constitutional changes that would give President Vladimir Putin the option of seeking two more terms, potentially keeping him in the Kremlin until 2036, Russian social media is overrun with images of ad hoc voting stations and tales of incompetence and chaos, all emerging since the weeklong balloting began on June 25.

In response to mounting evidence of what critics say are blatant loopholes in the voting process, the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, has remained defiant. "No one is voting on benches or in car trunks. No one is voting in tents," she told reporters on June 25. Outdoor voting, she insisted, was a "strictly controlled procedure."

Evidence suggests otherwise. And the bizarre methods apparently aimed at increasing turnout, which have been widely shared online, have prompted Putin's opponents to reiterate claims they've made all along: that the political exercise is a transparent power grab that will affect Russia for years to come.

"What a disgrace all this voting in outhouses, on benches and car trunks is. It's all turned into such a farce that it's sickening to watch, let alone take part in," wrote popular blogger Aleksandr Gorbunov, whose Twitter handle is StalinGulag.

Others simply jeered.

"All this voting on stumps, flowerbeds, and car hoods has something unbearably familiar to it," journalist Ilya Klishin wrote on Facebook, above a photo appearing to show several women tallying votes in a small forest clearing. "As if mom will poke her head out of the window any minute and shout to the whole courtyard that the cartoons have begun."

Flood Of Amendments

But the changes at stake in the plebiscite are no joke. Over 200 amendments to the constitution are being voted on, ranging from reforms defining marriage as a strictly heterosexual union to clauses obliging Russia to counter all attempts -- domestic and foreign -- to falsify its history.

These and other proposed changes have featured in a relentless campaign by state TV and pro-Kremlin social-media channels to promote the plebiscite. Slickly produced clips sanctioning homophobia have gone viral, and billboards along Moscow's ring road show smiling ethnic Russian couples with children and slogans about the defense of "family values."

Inside apartment blocks around central Moscow, various posters have appeared urging people to vote, some of them featuring large letters spelling out "DA" -- Russian for "yes." Others have promoted the various prizes that voters will be eligible for, including movie tickets and sports equipment. Most feature no details on the actual changes being voted on.

In fact, Russians have not been given a choice which changes to approve and which to discard. The ballot requires a simple "yes" or "no" choice on the entire package. And the constitutional change that could be the most consequential for Russia -- the clause resetting Putin's presidential term count to zero and letting him seek a fifth and sixth presidential term in 2024 and 2030 -- has gone almost unmentioned in these promotional campaigns.

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The day it published the proposed amendments in full, the official website of the national vote initially left out that clause altogether -- only to add it in when reporters spotted and publicized the omission. At least two weeks before voting even began, bookshops across Moscow were selling copies of the Russian Constitution with the new amendments included.

Voting for the amendments will run for seven days, culminating on July 1. Every day will feature a raffle, with anything from shopping vouchers to apartments up for grabs.

The government has justified the extended voting process and the mobile polling booths as necessary responses to the coronavirus pandemic, which forced a postponement of the original voting date of April 22 and has hit Russia hard in the weeks since, sickening over 620,000 people across the country's 11 time zones and causing at least 8,781 deaths -- though there is evidence that the true toll may be much higher.

According to a survey by state-funded pollster VTsIOM, published on June 19, only 42 percent of Russians believed the vote would be free and fair.

And beyond issues of safety and mockery over efforts to raise turnout, questions have arisen about the process of electronic voting, which is being tested in Moscow and the Nizhny Novgorod region, which includes Russia's fifth-largest city. Independent election experts have criticized its hasty introduction, noting data-privacy issues and fears that it can be manipulated by the authorities to secure the desired turnout.

The result will be considered valid no matter how many people vote, but analysts say the Kremlin fears low turnout could undermine the perceived legitimacy of the constitutional changes.

'Yes' No Matter What

Given factors including the Kremlin's control over levers of power at all levels nationwide, a "yes" vote is widely expected despite what opinion polls say has been a decline in Putin's approval and trust ratings among Russians.

In what commentators suggested was a signal of the margin Putin might be aiming for, the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia reported this week that experts at VTsIOM forecast a 67-71 percent result in favor of the constitutional amendments.

A late-May survey by the independent Levada Center found that 44 percent of respondents said they would vote for the amendments and 32 percent against, but the proportion backing the changes increased to 55 percent among likely voters.

WATCH: Activists dressed as corpses gathered at a St. Petersburg cemetery in a bizarre protest against Russia's nationwide vote on changing the constitution.

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On the first day of voting, journalist Pavel Lobkov of independent TV channel Dozhd recorded on camera his visit to a local polling station to cast his vote against the amendments, and then filmed himself voting again -- this time electronically -- using an app on his smartphone.

After his video was posted on Dozhd's website, civil charges were launched against Lobkov for allegedly violating electoral rules, and the following day he reported that five police officers visited his home in central Moscow. He demanded his lawyer be present before admitting the officers into his home, he said in an interview with Dozhd.

Asked about Lobkov's video, Central Election Commission chief Pamfilova accused Dozhd of planning in advance to discredit the voting process. "This is a series of provocations," Pamfilova said. "Someone went and deliberately voted twice."

She didn't appear to address the loophole that Lobkov's report exposed.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.