The assumption that a lay observer is someone with a lot of free time on their hands is very common in Russia.
However, a study by Yulia Skokova reveals that the vast majority of observers are employed, often in fields such as IT, research, and education, in a managerial or expert capacity; most observers are between the agesof 18 and 45.
These are some of the findings from a survey of lay observers who worked the Moscow mayoral election in September 2013. The survey was part of a broader study and covered about a thousand respondents. In addition to the observers' professional affiliation, the study examined their financial situation, motives for volunteering, and this movement’s prospects of in Russia.
A broad outlook and good education appear to play an important role in motivating individuals to fight for fair elections. More than 70% of the observers surveyed had university degrees, and 17% were in graduate school or held a doctoral degree; just 2% of the respondents had no education beyond general school.
One-fifth of the respondents described their profession as IT, communications, and web-based occupations; 11% mentioned research and high-tech production, andother professional spheres each accounted for 7% or less of all observers. Virtually none of the observers reported being employed in agriculture, state and municipal government, the military, or law enforcement. "Most observers are employed in areas where they handle information. Indeed, their wide access to information makes them aware of election violations and motivates them to volunteer as observers," says Skokova.
In response to questions about their financial situation, 48% said their family could afford to buy a carbut not a house or an apartment, 14% said they could afford to buy an apartment, 28% could affordhousehold appliances, and 8% could affordonly clothes and footwear.
Irrespective of income level, the majority of respondents described themselves as middle class, interpreting this category very broadly:some who struggled to buy food and some who could afford to buy a car or even an apartment both identified withthe lower middle class.
The author concludes that election observers differ fromradical political activists in that theyusually lead mainstream lifestyles. Counter to popular belief, most observers are not students or retired pensioners but accomplished professionals with reasonably good incomes.
The high social status held by those who become election observers is not what drives these individuals."They are concerned about rights and freedoms, about a good political environment, and want to be part of something that can make a difference," says Skokova.
When asked about their reasons for volunteering, 69% mentioned disagreeing with the results of previous elections; 64% wanted to make sure that the current elections are fair; 58% felt it was their duty as citizens, and more than a third were driven, among other things, by a desire to get involved in something really important for their country and city.
Other reasons, such as wanting social interaction, were not so common. "As opposed to joining a rally, you have to commit your entire day; you have to get up at 6 am on a weekend, and stay past midnight to count the votes in a potentially stressful environment," says Skokova.
A significant portion of the observers volunteered in order to support a certain candidate: 19% did so on their own initiative, and 7% said they had been asked by a specific candidate or political party to observe the polling. According to the survey, none of the observers were members or supporters of any current parliamentary parties, but 40% supported certain political parties not represented in the Russian parliament.
When asked whether and under what circumstances they would volunteer as election observers again, only six out of nearly 1,500 respondents said they would not do so under any circumstances, and 68% said they would do so again whatever the circumstances.
The author believes that, in the future, the election observer movement will face two challenges, namely mobilizing more volunteers in the regions and retaining the existing observers. "Federal elections will not be held any time soon, and only some regional and local elections will occur in about a year, but not in Moscow where 10,000 observers could be mobilized," notes Skokova.
The study’s author emphasizes that election observers have contributed significantly to the development of civil society in Russia. The fact that thousands of people volunteered to observe elections independently and without any compensation gives hope that this movement will overcome any challenges it may face in the future.