In Russia, socially distant voting has become much easier.
The Russian Parliament has passed a bill to expand the possibility of “remote voting” – particularly online. Now, the amendments to the country's basic guarantee of electoral rights law allow Russian citizens to cast their vote by post and online. The law was submitted to the consideration of the deputies of the ruling United Russia party on March 2 and was approved on March 13.
If that change seems unusually rapid, it could be from where the law came from. On May 12, the independent investigative channel Proekt.Media reported on its Telegram channel that it was an initiative of the presidential administration.
The law essentially removes any federal and legal obstacle to the extension of remote voting. This includes postal mail voting, which has never proven particularly popular. In 2011, the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) clarified that voting by mail was allowed only if allowed by regional law and if the voter was unable to attend the polling station in person. It also allows the postponement of elections and referendum if more than two districts in the region in question have declared a state of alarm.
The debate over the implications of the law has been quite inconsistent. For example, Dmitry Vyatkin, one of the co-authors of the law, told Interfax on May 13 that the law did not compel any region to vote that way, but allowed them to do so if the CEC deemed it necessary. Vyatkin also hinted that remote voting could have a very practical use during the COVID-19 pandemic in Russia:
Сколько эти ограничения продлятся, и какая будет эпидемиологической ситуация, мы не знаем, но такие поправки надо принимать до объявления даты голосования
We do not know how long these restrictions will last, nor what the epidemiological situation will be. These amendments must be approved before the election date is announced.
In recent weeks, state officials have been busy figuring out the practicalities of online voting.
So far, we know that voters will need to sign up on the government's public services page or other pages approved by the Central Electoral Commission to cast an online vote. The regions that have taken the step to prepare for online voting are still unknown; On May 26, the director of the CEC, Ella Pamfilova, said that although it was up to the regions to request the CEC to help them establish online voting, none had yet done so, since the date of the Russian general election.
It is fair to assume that there will be no general election under current conditions. This gives the Russian authorities more time to prepare, and perhaps refine, online voting methods based on past experience that appear to have been only unevenly successful.
Online voting, before it was great.
However, the context of the COVID-19 pandemic may have increased the urgency of this bill, it is important to remember that Russia has a long history of experimenting with online voting.
In 2008, online voting was only allowed as a non-mandatory option for voters in few regional polling stations. During President Dmitry Medvedev's term he introduced it, along with telephone voting, as an ideal solution for both the Government and its citizens, as it could make voting cheaper and would be convenient for Russians living abroad or in remote areas. In 2017, Russia's Central Election Commission declared online voting to be its priority, to be carried out by 2021 under the country's Digital Economy Program.
It was Moscow who opened a path. In 2014, Mayor Sergey Sobyanin launched the “active citizen” application, a system that allowed residents of the capital to give their opinion on non-political municipal decisions.
When the Moscow municipal elections were held in 2019, online voting was ready to be implemented and put to the test in one district of the capital. Absentee voting was replaced by a “mobile voter” system that allowed voters to change districts before the vote, either online or in person; Opposition members and electoral observers expressed their doubts about the system: when asked his predecessor Vyatkn how it would work, he simply replied that “blockchain technology” would be used without further explanation.
Election day in Moscow was overshadowed by allegations of electoral fraud: protests erupted after dozens of independent opposition candidates were banned from competing on fallacious bureaucratic motives.
Although these obstacles were associated with the usual system of collecting signatures in support of independent candidacies, neither did the experimental online voting escape criticism. The main opponent, Alexey Navalny, he claimed that two independent candidates in Moscow would have won had it not been for the results of the online vote, and he denounced it as a tool of electoral fraud. Candidate Roman Yuneman even vowed to bring his allegations of electronic electoral fraud to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) if necessary.
In the end, only 9,810 Muscovites voted online. That figure seemed much more significant when it became known that the personal details of those voters leaked a week after the vote, suggesting problems with digital security.
Alexander Isavnin, a researcher at the Internet Protection Society, a Russian NGO that defends digital rights, stated in an interview with RuNet Echo that the result of the Moscow elections did not give reason for hope:
“Удачей” московского “эксперимента» стало то, что общество крайне вяло среагировало на его проведение, хотя там был совсем ад: не было никакого контроля над флрмировпнием списков голосующих, всё работало на технике и управлядось работниками мэрии, не было уверенности что происходит надёжная анонимизация , не было уверенности в том chado Смысл в том, что для тайного голосования нет надёжных алгоритмов сохраняющю щ д п п п п п п п п Не только в России – вообще.
The “success” of the Moscow “experiment” was proof that society reacted too slowly, although it was hell. There was no control over the voting lists, everything was carried out technologically and was supervised by city hall employees. There was no certainty that the vote was truly anonymous, there was no certainty that it was the voters themselves who voted, no testing or demonstration of vulnerabilities, etc. The point is that there are no reliable algorithms for secret voting that simultaneously guarantee the secrecy of the vote and provide reliable voter identification. Not only in Russia, but in general.
Despite these criticisms, the Duma also passed a bill in May that extends Moscow's experiments with local electronic voting throughout 2020 and 2021.
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Although COVID-19 dominates radio waves, these new electoral changes have not escaped the attention of the most critical observers.
Sergey Smirnov, editor of the independent media outlet MediaZona, expressed concern about the use of a social assistance portal for voter registration:
Голосование введут через Госуслуги, наверняка. Где сейчас будут активно регистрироваться для получения выплат для детей. Вообще правильно будет выдавать пособие только в случае, если человек приходит на “выборы” в Гос Нет, ну а что?
Sergey Smirnov, Telegram, May 12, 2020
They will likely set up voting through a state services portal. Where now people sign up for help to support their children. So, the right thing to do would be to make those payments to someone only if they also register to vote on the state services portal. Well how about that?
That same day, Lyubov Sobol, a senior member of the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, argued on Facebook that the election of online voting authorities was the response to his colleagues' “smart voting” initiative. This online, data-driven tool allowed Muscovites to identify the strongest challenger among pro-government candidates in their district, regardless of their political allegiance.
United Russia politicians have justified the move by saying that this will allow voters to exercise their rights during an emergency.
Politicians of the “systemic opposition” (the other three parties allowed parliamentary representation along with United Russia) also strongly criticized the law after the vote. Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party (KPFR) told Svobodnaya Presa that “the entire administration system in Russia is aimed at vote theft … everything related to electronic voting is fraud.” As Oleg Sheinin, Deputy of Fair Russia, told Novaya Gazeta: “practically all the opposition voted against this … it is a law that destroys the privacy of voters.”
Other analysts highlight the role expanding online voting could play in increasing turnout to improve the legitimacy of future elections.
In his statement on the amendments, Grigory Melkonyants, head of the NGO Golos that oversees the elections, lamented a “black day” for voters' rights in Russia. Melkonyants noted that while the amendments technically empowered regions to choose whether or not to use remote voting, the CEC can decide which requests to approve and deny, formally giving an institution that is under the strong influence of federal authorities arbitrary power over the extent to which certain regions can apply online voting.
On May 13, in a column for the Novaya Gazeta, political scientist Vitaly Shklyarov spoke of Switzerland's experience with online voting, which was eventually abandoned due to perceived vulnerability and attempts at hacking. What did the Kremlin learn from examples from abroad? Would the software be open source for full transparency? It is not likely, he argued, that the Kremlin declared it a state secret. Could these problems be overcome if blockchain technology were used? Unlikely, Shklyarov continued, given the small number of people familiar with it and the time pressure to prepare it in time for September 2020.
Most importantly, Shkylarov noted that internet voting has always been a minimal part of the total. As such, officials would not have to interfere with its content. If digital security turns out to be brittle, voters could easily be pressured by corrupt officials to vote according to instructions, and this time he stressed that it is impossible to cast null votes. The system will only accept full votes.
An online referendum?
The Duma has already approved the use of electronic voting for the next big elections in Russia: on September 13, 20 regions will elect their governors and 11 members of their legislatures. In the event of a flare-up of COVID-19 infections in the fall time, citizens of quarantined regions will have the ability to vote, thereby giving up delaying election day further.
The burning question is whether these amendments will apply to a much-debated referendum on constitutional amendments. The proposed changes are controversial as they essentially “readjust” the limits of Vladimir Putin's presidential term and allow him to stay in power. The referendum was supposed to be held on April 22, but it was reluctantly postponed in light of the pandemic, potentially until September.
So far, there has been little clarity as to whether the new amendments can be applied to the referendum. Some legal experts claim that the voting procedure for the referendum was established as soon as it was declared. In an interview with Ria Novosti, Vyatkin stated otherwise: On May 13, CEC secretary Maya Grishina stressed that the amendments were made to a law that regulates local elections and referendums, and not national constitutional referendums.
However, the next day, Nikolai Bulayev, vice-president of the CEC, told Kommersant that he could not rule out the use of online voting in the constitutional referendum.
The solution to this puzzle will soon be clarified. As the Russian authorities cautiously relax their confinement restrictions and allow major public events to be held again, the focus has shifted back to the referendum. As Bloomberg reports, Putin and his entourage seem eager to celebrate in June or July, before presidential approval ratings drop further.
The ever-present index problem, as political scientist Maria Snegovaya has pointed out, may influence the Kremlin's interest in holding the referendum on the same day as the postponed Victory Day parade.