Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Does Russian Need a Word for Gerrymandering?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 6 – The introduction of democratic procedures into the Russian Federation has led to the appearance of many new words in the Russian language, but one that does not yet appear may soon be necessary: the American word “gerrymandering” which denotes the drawing of election district borders to promote a particular electoral outcome.

            According to Russian law, Russian cities and districts had until February 1 to come up with single-member electoral districts, a deadline some at least have been unable to meet.  But an unusual report from a district in Arkhangelsk oblast suggests that gerrymandering is very much on the minds if not on the tongues of some Russian legislators.

            Two articles in “Vazhsky kray,” the weekly newspaper of the Shenkur District, provide an unusual glimpse into Russian fights over electoral district boundaries and particularly their redrawing for one or another reason. The first appeared on January 2 (; the second just yesterday (

            At a December 12 meeting of the Assembly of Deputies of the district, the local paper reported, there was “a short but lively discussion” concerning a proposal the leadership of that council had come up with to draw some new borders for the single-member mandate districts in the region

            A.S.Zasedateleva said that under new Russian law, the assembly had to approve the boundaries of nine electoral districts for the September 8 elections and do so before February 4. Given that the Shenkur district has 13,556 voters, each of these should “as close to possible” 1506 electors in each district.

            “Because the municipal formations of the district vary from one another in terms of the numbers of voters, V.A. Ptitsyn, chairman of the Shenkur territorial electoral commission, some of them will have to be enlarged at the expense of others and some will have to be cut down in size.

            As the paper reported, “anticipating that such a variant of ‘cutting’ could generate anger, the electoral commission chairman said that he “was ready to listen to any constructive proposals.”  Those he quickly got from the deputies, but he may not have considered all of them entirely “constructive”

            One deputy, V.V. Pozhensky, was especially vocal about his disagreement with the plan to redraw border. He had unsuccessfully sought to have consideration of this measure put off, and when he had the chance to respond, he was more than ready to do so.

            “When you ‘cut up’ the districts did you consult with the residents or the leaders? On paper this is one thing, but in life it is entirely different!  For example, with us, the village of Zabeynovo is two kilometers from Rovdino, but Ust-Padengi is 13 kilometers away. And they want to transfer Zabeynovo to the Ust-Padengi district. If that happens, residents of Zabeynovo will not vote for ten years: Why should they vote for a deputy from Ust-Padengi? And if we now accept this ‘cutting up’ of the district, no one will return to this question for ten years!”

            In the words of the local newspaper, Ptitsyn “parried this tirade” with a proposal to create a commission to reconsider all the disputed aspects of the redistricting plan. All 18 deputies voted for that, and a commission was duly formed that included both election specialists and deputies from across the region.

            That commission met on January 11.  Zasedateleva told a meeting of the Council on January 23 that the discussion about the redrawn boundaries of the electoral districts had been “very stormy” because the job of equalizing the size of the districts was “one of the most complicated tasks.”

            The electoral commission, she reported, came up with a new plan, one that took three villages from one district and put them in another.  And she sought its approval. Fourteen deputies voted to do so, a majority, but two abstained, and presumably they and the two not identified by vote opposed the measure.

            These district boundaries, which affect only local elections, will not be reconsidered for ten years, officials in the Shenkur district said. And they thus told the local paper that “for the present, the issue is closed,” however unhappy some may be with shifts in the borders that will affect electoral outcomes.

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