Moscow officials deny reports of fake voter registration, but their arguments don’t really hold up
The Dozhd investigation, in a nutshell
On June 16, the independent television network Dozhd (“TV Rain”) released an investigative report, claiming that Moscow residents are being offered money to register fake accounts and vote online in support of amending Russia’s constitution. The organizers of the scheme were recruiting via the messaging app WhatsApp, offering 75 rubles per registered account (about $1), and an additional 50 rubles ($0.72) for each online vote in favor of changing the constitution.
Participants in the scheme simply have to register fake accounts through the government portal “Mos.ru” using new SIM cards, made-up email addresses, and passport information belonging to real senior citizens. The organizers of the scheme provided extensive personal data, including dozens of senior citizens’ full names, social security numbers, residential addresses, and dates of birth. According to documents seen by Dozhd’s correspondent, the scheme targeted elderly Moscow residents, who ranged from 60 to 100 years old. Several of these people later told Dozhd that they had never used Mos.ru and weren’t planning to vote in the July 1 plebiscite at all.
The official response
The day after Dozhd released the report, the Kremlin called the investigation “absolute nonsense.” Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov also warned that media outlets can face liability “for distributing knowingly false information,” if the reports are proven wrong. On the state-owned television channel Russia-1, the host of the program 60 Minutes, Olga Skabeeva, called the investigation bogus and a “false production.”
According to the chief developer of the electronic voting system — the head of the Moscow government’s department for improving territorial administration and the development of smart projects, Artem Kostyrko — records of all accounts on the government portals “Gosuslugi” and Mos.ru are linked to voter registration in the “Vybory” (“Elections”) automated system. As such, only those people whose personal account information matches the passport data already on file in this registry can apply to vote online.
Kostyrko later said that creating personal accounts to register for online voting had to be done before June 5 (the start date for online voter registration). He claimed that the Central Election Commission made this decision.
So what’s really happening?
Meduza fact checked the information from the Dozhd investigation, as well as the explanations from government officials.
1. The Mos.ru portal will allow you to register a personal account that can be used for online voting on behalf of another person
Creating an account in someone else’s name is much more difficult on Gosuslugi — for voting through this platform you need a verified account, which you can receive one of three ways: 1) through a personal appeal to the Pension Fund or a government services’ center, 2) via online banking (through major banks like Sberbank, Tinkoff Bank, and Pochta Bank), or 3) through the national postal operator, Russian Post. That said, to access voting on the Mos.ru portal, all you need to do is confirm your social security number (your “Individual insurance account number” or SNILS). The Russian Pension Fund then checks it against the information in its own database within 24 hours, to confirm that the social security number in question is actually assigned to a specific person. That said, this is in essence simply a reconciliation of personal data, rather than a confirmation of personal identity. The same can be said of checking passport data from personal accounts against the voter registry (as Artem Kostyrko said) — this does not constitute personal identification either.
While access to several other services on Mos.ru requires enhanced verification similar to that of Gosuslugi, for whatever reason this is not the case for accessing electronic voting.
To verify Dozhd’s reports, Meduza journalists carried out an experiment, following the steps in the investigation. Using a brand new SIM card and newly created email address, we registered a personal account on Mos.ru on June 18, using the passport information, address, SNILS, and date of birth of a senior citizen (a Meduza journalist’s mother) who did not yet have an account. A day later, the passport number and SNILS were confirmed by the system. In other words, there were no problems applying for electronic voting. We even received an email confirmation with the time of registration, reference number, and application number. During the evening of June 20, a new notification arrived, confirming that the application for voting (filed on behalf of another person) had been accepted.
While this does not mean that the Central Election Commission will definitely allow access to voting through this personal account, it’s worth noting that there were no problems with the application. And it’s not entirely clear what criteria could be used to weed out fake accounts.
2. There was no Central Election Commission decision on banning electronic voting through personal accounts created after June 5th
Artem Kostyrko referred to a decision banning voting through personal accounts created after the June 5th start date for voter registration. However, the Central Election Commission’s directive on procedures for remote electronic voting, published on June 4, does not say anything about an end date for creating personal accounts. There is also no mention of this on the Mos.ru website itself, which is still calling on Muscovites to register personal accounts in order to vote online.
3. Law enforcement and government officials indirectly confirmed the seriousness of the Dozhd investigation
At the request of the Moscow Central Election Commission, law enforcement have begun to verify the claims made in the Dozhd investigation. On the night of June 18, four men in civilian clothing came to the Dozhd studio, claiming to be police officers and demanding that journalist Anton Baev — the author of the investigation — come with them. They said they wanted to question him about the report. Uniformed police officers later arrived, and took Baev’s personal information, as well as a statement from him, outside of the Dozhd studio. According to Dozhd editor-in-chief Dmitry Yelovsky, law enforcement were seeking information on the people responsible for organizing the distribution of SIM cards for voting.
According to the Vice Chairman of the Moscow Civic Chamber, Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov, all applications for online voting are verified by not only Moscow officials, but also the Federal Security Service (FSB). Venediktov is actively advocating for online voting.
After the publication of Meduza’s original Russian-language report, Artem Kostyrko published a response in a blog for Ekho Moskvy. The original article also contained claims that an individual was able to create an account for voter registration after June 5th and then received an invitation for test voting. This example later proved to be inaccurate, since the individual in question had previously registered through another government portal. The text was corrected accordingly.
Summary by Eilish Hart