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Online voting, electronic manipulation

The Bell

Russia’s electoral system is moving closer to the Kremlin’s idea of perfection. For the first time in history, an upcoming poll for elections to the Moscow City Duma will be fully online. Electronic voting makes it much easier for the authorities to manipulate the results and has the added benefit of reducing the cost of monitoring polling stations and physically tallying vote counts. Soon, the Kremlin will no longer have to rely on a loyal army of tens of thousands of election officials and volunteers to help boost numbers.

  • The Central Election Commission announced last week that September’s elections to the Moscow City Duma, the capital’s governing council, will take place entirely online. Technically it will still be possible to use a paper ballot — but only if you request it several days ahead of the vote — meaning e-voting is now seen as the norm. Physical polling stations will still exist, decked out with electronic terminals for voters to log in and cast their ballot.
  • The idea of electronic voting is a logical step forward given how many basic services people access entirely online these days. But in Russia’s electoral system — once dubbed a “managed democracy” for having the apparent trappings of elections but in which the results and outcomes are controlled from the center — it has already been demonstrated that online voting allows the authorities to more easily manipulate the results. 
  • In every poll while electronic voting was an option, Vladimir Putin and his party achieved better results from the online electorate than those that cast paper ballots, even though logic suggests the reverse should be true, since younger voters — less inclined to support the authorities — should be more likely to vote online. (Although in some elections, like the 2021 parliament elections, opposition candidates urged against online voting arguing that paper ballots were slightly harder to falsify.) For instance, in the 2024 presidential election, Putin polled 76.8% at physical polling stations in Moscow. But he got 89% from the online vote, bringing his overall vote share in the capital to 85.1%.
  • Online voting was first rolled out in 2020, initially as a supposed anti-Covid measure. Two electronic systems were developed, which authorities said were based on blockchain technology and encrypted so that votes could not be connected to an individual or changed along the way. But unlike a true blockchain, every node of Russia’s online voting systems is under the authorities’ control. As a result, according toexperts, the system gives far-reaching opportunities for fraud — as well as for exposing who individual voters cast their ballots for.
  • Not surprisingly, Russian state agencies and corporations are now not only forcing staff to vote, but obliging them to do so online. Ahead of the 2024 presidential poll, The Bell reported that state-owned airline Aeroflot was among the companies who had issued such an order to its employees. Behind closed doors, a representative of the presidential administration argued that the new system would enable the Kremlin to observe in real time the percentage of people who have voted and, if necessary, to identify how any specific individual cast their ballot.

Why the world should care

It might seem like overkill for the Russian authorities to invest so much time and effort to further secure an already rigged vote. The Kremlin has repeatedly demonstrated it is more than capable of delivering predetermined outcomes through offline voting. However, Putin sees elections are an important tool to demonstrate his legitimacy. Moving them online makes life much easier for Russia’s political managers. At the moment it requires mobilizing a complex network of tens of thousands of people (mostly schoolteachers) across the country to ensure that the “right” results are produced at polling stations across Russia’s 11 time zones. But soon the Kremlin’s “blockchain” will be able to do this with a few clicks of a button.


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