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Counting votes in Russia's presidential election

(Reuters) - The Kremlin says Russia’s elections are free and fair. The Kremlin’s opponents say fraud and ballot-rigging are widespread.

FILE PHOTO: Russian President and Presidential candidate Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at his election headquarters in Moscow, Russia March 18, 2018. Sergei Chirkov/POOL via Reuters

Proving who is right is extraordinarily difficult, so to cut through the war of words, Reuters’ Moscow bureau set out to gather hard data to show what happened during Sunday’s presidential election that gave Vladimir Putin another term as Russia’s president.

Some of the most vivid reporting came from the southern Russian town of Ust-Djeguta where Reuters reporters recorded images of 17 people voting multiple times. Seven of them either denied voting more than once or declined to comment.

Reuters reporters were posted at 12 polling stations across five regions of Russia, where they tracked voting without interruption from the moment polls opened at 8 a.m. until after voting finished at 8 p.m. and election officials completed the count. The objective was to witness every person who walked into a polling station and cast a ballot, and then to check that figure against the official turnout.

Last weekend’s election was the third time Reuters used this method to cover an election in Russia. To make sure our tally was accurate, our reporters used mechanical counters, similar to the ones airline crews sometimes use to track passengers as they pass through the cabin.

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In last year’s parliamentary election, the local election commission in the Bashkortostan region in central Russia claimed that one of these counters was a radioactive device and tried to have the reporter ejected from the polling station. The reporter stood his ground.

Because it is difficult for even the hardiest journalist to keep vigil at a polling station all day without a break, we operated in teams of three or four during the March 18 election so reporters could have an occasional respite.

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Reuters reporters each took hundreds of photos of voters and shared the images via Telegram Messenger. That helped our journalists identify people who voted multiple times, most of whom did nothing to change their appearance, said Maria Tsvetkova, the Moscow reporter who spearheaded the project.

In nine of the 12 polling stations, the discrepancies between the number of voters we recorded and official figures were 10 percent or greater.

“We couldn’t believe our eyes: these people voted so many times that reporters were able to notice them, but election officials did not find them suspicious,” Tsvetkova said.

Edited by Lauren Young and Toni Reinhold