Far from home, Mikhail Panko watched from Boston as thousands of Russians flooded the streets of Moscow in December, protesting alleged election fraud. They vowed not to let it happen again.
And Panko decided he would help them -- online. His brainchild is Grakon.org, a website that helps election observers and ordinary people work together to keep an eye on Russian ballot boxes. The result is a social network kind of like Facebook, if Facebook were devoted to stopping rigged elections.
“They can say, ‘I’m an observer at this polling station and I need a couple volunteers to help me out.’ They can say, ‘There’s a problem, help me,’ and people can help resolve it sooner,” said Panko, a Russian doctoral student in cognitive science at Boston University. “If we have a team, we can put up a fight.”
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose United Russia party was accused of stuffing ballot boxes to boost its numbers in the December parliamentary elections, is widely expected to win the upcoming presidential contest. Thousands of complaints about vote tampering in December have gone nowhere. Putin turned down a revote.
Yet even with little suspense over who will win, Russians are stepping up to monitor the presidential poll this Sunday. Tens of thousands of Russians are becoming election observers, many for the first time.
More than 7,000 people have signed up on the site that Panko and other Russian college students created, including voters, election observers, journalists and attorneys. The website had raised roughly $35,000 as of this week for infrastructure and advertising.
Although Russia already has groups that observe the polls, the new website helps them coordinate. For instance, the website plans to upload voting records vetted by and handed to election observers to make sure they match up with the official counts. It encourages people at each polling place to create teams of observers so that election officials can’t shut out or distract a single person.
“One person can be ignored or denied access,” said Maria Gaidar, a former Russian deputy governor and political activist now studying at Harvard University. “But if we can cover the country, observers will stand strong, knowing there is support all around. We have to make it difficult” for fraud to happen.
Russian election watchdogs were threatened and harassed last year, according to Human Rights Watch. The main independent monitor, Golos, was accused of helping the U.S. meddle in Russian elections. Echoing those allegations, Putin accused the U.S. of stoking the election fraud protests against him.
So far only one of the candidates has joined with Grakon: Billionaire presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov plans to have his team of election monitors share information on the site. But the students stress that they aren’t plugging for him or anyone else.
“If Putin wins fairly, that’s completely fine,” Panko said.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Would-be election observer Yelena Tarasova displays an ID issued by Golos, Russia's oldest independent election monitor, in Moscow on Saturday. Credit: Mikhail Metzel / Associated Press