RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Russians are voting today in an election that's expected to return Vladimir Putin to the presidency. There's not a lot of suspense about the choice, but there are big questions about whether a growing segment of Russian society will accept the result. Russia's parliamentary elections, in December, were tainted by allegations of massive vote fraud. This time, thousands of volunteer poll watchers have been deployed to try to curb any attempts to rig the vote.
NPR's Corey Flintoff is on the line with us from Moscow, where he's been visiting polling stations.
Corey, where have you been watching the vote take place?
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, we visited several precincts. But the most interesting one is the one where there have been allegations of really egregious fraud in the parliamentary elections in December. And in that particular case it was said that the voting was all done properly, but the top official at the precinct simply changed all the numbers before they were reported. So it was a particularly interesting one.
When we were there, there was a new top official and it looked like things are in a little better order - at least to this point. We've heard so far that turnout is brisk throughout the country. It's about 30 percent so far, you know, with a great deal of voting still to be done.
MARTIN: So how seriously do people seem to be taking these concerns about vote fraud?
FLINTOFF: Well, you know, it was that fraud in December that got thousands or tens of thousands of people out into the streets in protest. And, you know, the government really was taken aback by that. So, one thing that they did was install Web cameras in all these precincts in an effort to at least show that the voting would be transparent. One thing the opposition has done is train thousands of volunteers to act as poll watchers.
Here's what one voter - he's a 30-year-old businessman named Sergei Kirilinko(ph). Here's what he had to say about it:
SERGEI KIRILINKO: I'm not so sure about Web cameras but the numbers of observers is much higher, I think three or four times higher than the last time. And so, the next step, the observers should make sure that after ballot boxes are opened, no fraud could be committed. So, hopefully what I am optimist so I expect better things.
FLINTOFF: So, in other words, he trusts the volunteers much more than he trusts the government cameras.
So far today, we've been hearing from an independent election watchdog that there've been more than a thousand complaints of election violations.
MARTIN: So, do the precautions against a possible election fraud seem like they will actually work?
FLINTOFF: Well, there are just so many other ways that elections can be manipulated. We saw one example, and that is we talked to a lot of people who are voting absentee ballots. If you're not in your home precinct you can get an absentee ballot and vote anywhere in the country. It's what we would call a question ballot.
But for instance, the government has brought in more than 6,000 paramilitary police to keep order. And every single one of those police officers is a voter. They're all voting absentee. And, you know, it's a pretty good bet that they're voting for the government.
MARTIN: What if people aren't satisfied with the result, Corey? Can we expect to see the kind of political protest we saw in the buildup to these elections?
FLINTOFF: Yes, many people have said they'll come out in protest. A great many people say these elections are illegitimate on the face because the government has manipulated the ballot, so that all the other candidates are much weaker than Putin, in the first place. And if people feel that there's been a massive fraud, I think there will be substantial protest.
The government has taken steps to preempt those protests, so there's going to be a day to united Russia victory rally today in Moscow. And the government has tried to take steps to make sure that the protest rallies will be much smaller and much farther away from the center of the city. So it remains to be seen whether people who are really angry about what they see as election fraud are willing to go without permission and just demonstrate anyway.
MARTIN: NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow. Thanks so much, Corey.
FLINTOFF: Thank you.
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