Eesti Elu
Memories of elections during the Soviet occupation Estonian Life
Arvamus 30 Jan 2015  Eesti Elu
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Laas Leivat

„The day I turned 18 was the first day I voted in Soviet elections. It was a beautiful day and I spent most of it at he beach. At six in the evening I went to the polling station. The officials there gave me an angry dressing down. They could have closed the poll at twelve noon. I was the only one on the voters’ list who hadn’t cast a ballot. A book that was meant to be as gift for someone voting for the first time was simply thrown at me.

„On election day the local store was stocked with weiners, manderines and other goodies
usually very scarce at other times. The line-up was rather long, but well worth it. It was even possible to find, while waiting, someone who would stuff your ballot into the box for you. I know that many simply didn’t bother to go and vote. Things were so absurd that unfilled ballots were simply stuffed into the ballot box with forged signatures.“

Statistically it seemed as if Soviet-occupied Estonia’s electorate took their duty to vote to heart. Confirming this was the fact that voter turnout was usually between 96%-98% - a turnout that was and is rare in western democracies. From the recollections above it wasn’t so much a sense of duty that produced maximum participation, but rather a cynical resigantion

But the results came with some caveats. Voter lists were doctored to eliminate those names who didn’t or couldn’t show up to vote. And heavy emphasis was placed on the success of the local “agitators”, individuals who were appointed at their place of employment to ensure that all voters fulfill their duty as citizens and vote.

During the days preceding election day agitators visited all voters reminding them of their responsibilities and urging them to check that their names were on the voter registry. On election day their ‘whipping’ of the electorate didn’t finish till midnight when balloting actually ended. (Only in later years did polling stations close at 10:00 pm.) The agitator monitored the lists all day, to check for absent miscreants. A former agitator has said that it was often the practice to finally drop the ballots of the no-shows into the election box in their absence.

Non-participation during the early occupation years was considered potentially punishable. The editorial of “Rahva Hääl” of July 14, 1940 (the first Soviet occupation) was deliberately menacing: “Being absent from voting could be a serious mistake. In our current situation, we consider anyone who is passive to be an enemy of the working class.” A message in the July 11 “Rahva Hääl” was targeted to Estonians in exile a few days before the elections: “During this time the national sovereignty of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians is guaranteed through the mutual assistance pacts concluded with the Soviet Union.”

The Soviets made voting stress-free. It was simple. The list of names on the ballot was reduced to an exact minimum – one. No inner turmoil as to who to vote for. No effort in determining the best campaign platform. The voter was left with only one choice, whether to attend or not. The latter might bring on “discomfort” for the non-voter. All candidates “nominated by the people” were thus elected – unanimously.

Candidates were selected by the local Communist party, Komsomol (Youth wing) and trade union officials under the direction of the district party organization. Though voters formally had the right to vote for or against the unopposed candidate until 1987, all candidates usually received 99% of the vote.

Polling stations opened at 6:00 am. In addition to the admonitions of the agitator, enticements such as the sale of oranges, coffee, wieners – goods in deficit – and also concerts, were sometimes used as bait. The walls were decorated with election-related posters and slogans, to eliminate any doubt as to the solemn importance of the occasion.

At the closing of polling stations the results were counted. This was easy. The sum total of ballots equaled the election result. It was rumored that spoiled ballots were simply eliminated. But at the same time the local State Security Committee (NKVD/KGB ) was known to take certain written insults on ballots very seriously and made a great effort to find the authors. Appropriate advice on election results was offered by Josph Stalin at the Communist Party’s XVII congress in 1936: “It’s not important how one votes, but rather how the votes are counted.”

A near perfect turn-out on election day is typically an aberration in a democratic society. However a low voter turn-out in the Estonian parliamentary elections can be interpreted in many ways. It’s been said that individuals who don’t take their right to vote as a duty have in essence abandoned any expectation that their criticism of any post-election government is to be taken seriously. Simply put, others will speak up on their behalf, whether they like it or not.
[b]Do the right thing. Cast your ballot at Estonian House in Toronto on
Wednesday, February 18, from 11:00 am to 8:00 pm and on Thursday, February 19, during the same hours.
At the Estonian Embassy in Ottawa on Saturday, February 14, from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm and on Tuesday, February 17, from 12:00 am to 7:00 pm.[b]
Laas Leivat
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