UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible).
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It's just days before the Russian presidential election, and the office of Golos is jampacked.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Russian).
KELLY: Golos is the Russian word for voice. It also means vote, a fitting name for an independent election watchdog group. Every surface here is buried under pamphlets for volunteers, boxes of voting guides.
ROMAN UDOT: Should I speak English?
KELLY: Roman Udot helps run Golos. He invited me to his office to talk about what it means to observe an election in Russia.
UDOT: Let me show you. OK, this...
KELLY: I'll just explain. We're just...
UDOT: Oh, OK.
KELLY: ...Watching on your laptop here. And you were pulling up - this is video of a polling station in 2016. Where are we? What - this is Moscow.
UDOT: The region - yeah, it's Kazan region.
KELLY: The minutiae of voting in Russia will sound familiar if you've ever voted in America. People here in Russia generally cast their ballots at a school or another public building near their home. They put a check next to their preferred candidate's name, then slip the paper through a slot into a secure ballot box. At least that is how it's supposed to work.
UDOT: ...Of the commission.
KELLY: We're seeing a guy. He's putting his ballot down into the ballot box.
UDOT: Yeah, yeah, (unintelligible).
KELLY: He walks away.
KELLY: In from the right...
KELLY: More people are - oh, my God, they've just opened the ballot box.
UDOT: They took it from under their clothes. They stuff it, stuff it, stuff it. It's...
KELLY: It's one, two, three, four people pulling ballots out of...
KELLY: ...Their jackets and...
UDOT: Yeah, and the reaction of the commission - the reaction of the chair of the commission...
KELLY: Now, each polling place has a government-mandated security camera that rolls nonstop on election day. But the tapes rarely see the light of day, so Golos depends on whistleblowers to send in footage that shows fraud. Or people can send pictures or call a toll-free number. Golos also deploys volunteer election observers - thousands of them all over the country to keep an eye on polling places.
When you're watching for fraud, when you're watching for falsification, is that how it tends to happen? Just more ballots are getting counted than people had showed up to vote.
UDOT: You'll see that it is ballot book stuffing, multiple voting. You multiple vote on one given polling station or merry-go-round, carousel when people goes from polling station to polling station. And we have videos.
KELLY: This was not the work that Golos set out to do. When the group was formed in 2000, they were a bunch of statistics wonks collecting raw data on voter turnout and writing reports based on that data. But 2000 was the same year that Vladimir Putin was first elected president. And Roman Udot says that each year since that election, reports of fraud have increased. Those math wonks - they couldn't trust the data anymore, and so Golos got a new mission.
UDOT: We observe the growing level of falsification. We can prove that with facts. We can prove that with statistical data. We're sort of a watchdog, and we've begun to draw attention, to bark (laughter). That - and that sound was very unpleasantly received by the government. Of course they are not happy when we are showing the problems in the elections because elections are the source of their power.
KELLY: Elections are the source of the regime's power. Make elections seem free and fair. Win by wide margins, and you've got a mandate to govern. You've also got incentive to shut down independent groups like Golos. The day after we spoke with Roman Udot, the group was evicted from a call center they had set up in another neighborhood. The landlord told Udot, we have no choice; they made us do it.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Russian).
KELLY: So this Sunday, if you live in Moscow, if you live in precinct 1096, this is where you're going to come vote. They are ready for about 1,500 voters.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Russian).
KELLY: I'm at this neighborhood school with Irena Belaya, a sweet-looking grandmother in her early 70s. She runs this polling station. On Sunday, she'll get to the school at 7 a.m., one hour before the polls open. She'll organize the ballots, inspect the list of registered voters, set up the table where she'll oversee what's going on. Irena Belaya will be watching, but she will be watched as well. Election observers the ones Golos sends all over the country pay close attention to the people who run precincts. Belaya gets it because she used to be an election observer herself.
KELLY: It is cold out, about 25 degrees in front of this school. So we head to Belaya's apartment nearby.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK, she wants to take us on a tour of her house.
KELLY: OK. These are all pictures of her.
IRENA BELAYA: (Speaking Russian).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: This is her and her husband.
KELLY: After the grand tour, we settle in at her dining room table to chat.
BELAYA: (Speaking Russian).
KELLY: Belaya's walking me through the nuts and bolts of voting in Russia when it becomes clear she has quite a story about volunteering during the 2011 parliamentary elections.
BELAYA: (Through interpreter) We were observers, but we were not truly allowed to observe. They kept us out of the way so we couldn't see anything. But then I accidentally passed a ballot box, and I witnessed the vice president of the committee stuffing 23 ballots into one of the boxes. I tried grabbing them from him, but he pushed me away. So I kept trying, and finally I was able to snatch them from him. But he cut his hand, and blood spilled on the ballots and on the floor. It looked like a thriller scene.
KELLY: And so what did you do? You complained.
BELAYA: (Through interpreter) Yes, of course. I was holding the ballots in my hands, and I was afraid to put them down. The people who ran the polling station approached me. They wanted me to hand them the ballots, but I refused. I said, I will give them only to a court official. Even the police came up to me, but I said, I won't give them to you. I'll give them only to the judge.
KELLY: Belaya took the bloody ballots to the courts, but the prosecutor refused to look into what had happened. She continues to speak out about what she witnessed at the polling station that day in 2011. I ask, does that put her in danger? This soft-spoken grandma stares me in the eye and raises her fists in the air.
BELAYA: (Through interpreter) I recall a passage from the book "Gulag Archipelago" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn where he wrote, why did those arrested on the streets - why didn't they shout? They were told, hush; hush; get into the car. And then they disappeared. And when that member of the committee told me the same words, hush; hush; don't shout, I said out loud, oh, you think this is shouting? I will show you what shouting is. I went to the center of the room and started screaming. Here, here, look. I think that the way you combat fraud and you fight lies is by speaking up.
KELLY: In 2013, Belaya decided to take the job running her local polling place. It's a government-funded position. The pay is about a dollar an hour. The work is part-time. Belaya figured if she couldn't get authorities to care about fraud as an election watcher, she'd try to prevent the fraud in the first place by being in charge. Like nearly everyone else we've talked to in Moscow, Belaya has no doubts about who will win on Sunday. So why get involved with the process? Why vote at all?
BELAYA: (Through interpreter) Can one person make a difference? Everyone says I cannot change anything on my own. That's what the majority thinks.
KELLY: Not voting is giving up, she says. And she is not ready to give up just yet. Irena Belaya - she'll be in charge this weekend at Moscow voting precinct 1096. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.