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Online voting and other reforms are coming to Russia in September. Opposition politicians are skeptical.

Source: Meduza
Sergey Fadeichev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Just before Russia’s most recent presidential elections in 2018, several fundamental changes were made to the country’s election laws. Absentee ballots were replaced with the so-called Mobile Voter system, which allowed voters to switch precincts ahead of the election either online or in person. Both election observers and opposition politicians immediately criticized the new system. Less than one year later, Russian authorities have decided to introduce two new absentee voting systems, including opportunities for online voting. Here, Meduza summarizes these new proposals, which are set to take effect as early as September 2019.

Digital precincts

These would be universal precincts that allow for absentee voting in any election that takes place anywhere in Russia. In September 2019, the concept will be tested in Moscow: voters who are registered in Russia’s regions but will be in Moscow on election day will nonetheless be able to vote. Those who hope to participate in the experiment will have to submit an online form three or more days before the September elections and register in one of 30 digital precincts available in Moscow. There will be no physical ballots at the voting sites associated with these precincts; instead, voters will choose candidates or parties on-screen through an electronic voting system. Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, has promised President Vladimir Putin to open 5,000 digital precincts around the country by 2021 so that voters will not have to return to their home regions on election day.

Online voting

A second innovation will allow “electronic absentee voting” within voters’ home precincts. In other words, Russia is set to introduce its first online voting system. The system will be tested in a Moscow neighborhood that will elect a single member to the capital’s city council in September. The details of how the experiment will work are not yet known; the State Duma’s proposal on Internet voting does not include logistical specifics. The Central Election Commission’s reference materials on the matter simply reference “absentee voting, blockchain technology.” When Dmitry Vyatkin, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, attempted to describe how exactly blockchains would be involved in the system, his explanation was entirely disconnected from the actual functions of that technology. A discussion of this new type of voting is planned for an upcoming public forum in Moscow.

Voting for citizens with no permanent registration

Anyone who remains in Russia for 7 business days or more is typically required to register at a particular address. However, Russians have only been legally permitted to vote in a particular district if their passports indicate a permanent registration in that area. That law may change: another new Duma bill would allow Russian citizens who have temporary registrations but not permanent ones to vote according to the registration they have by signing up for the corresponding precinct through the Mobile Voter system. The same proposals would allow regional election commissions to make independent decisions about whether to count electronic votes without receiving permission from the Central Commission.

Lax municipal filters and limits on external observation

Russian authorities have also approved but not yet introduced formal bills to relax the country’s so-called municipal filters. If these proposed changes are accepted, candidates for regional governorships will only have to collect signatures from five percent of municipal deputies in order to run (the current requirement is 10 percent). Representatives of the ruling United Russia party have urged opposition politicians to initiate a bill to formalize the change, but opposition politicians have demanded that the filter be repealed entirely.

In addition, Central Election Commission officials have expressed hope that the Russian government will introduce new limits on election observers. Officials have proposed prohibiting observers from monitoring elections in any region where they are not registered as voters themselves.

Mikhail Zelensky

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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