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Meet the ‘deferred vote’ Moscow introduces online voting in fall parliamentary elections

Source: Meduza
Artyom Geodakyan / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

During the upcoming State Duma elections, Muscovites will be able to cast their ballots via an updated version of the Russian capital’s remote electronic voting system. In-person and online voting will take place simultaneously over the course of three days. However, unlike during the 2020 plebiscite on constitutional amendments, online voters won’t be able to change their minds at the last moment and cast a paper ballot at their local polling station. That said, they are set to have the option of amending their electronic vote several times.

On July 13, municipal deputy Valery Golovchenko — the chairman of the Moscow City Duma’s Commission on Information Technology — held a video conference on the main parameters of the capital’s remote electronic voting system, which will be used during the State Duma elections in September. (For the purposes of the presentation, Golovchenko was billed as an “expert in the field of electronic voting”).

Electronic voting will start and close at the same time as in-person voting, but it will be available around the clock. In other words, it will be possible to cast your e-vote via the website any time between 8:00 a.m. on September 17 and 8:00 p.m. on September 19.

Registration for electronic voting will open on August 2 (a month and a half before the first day of voting) and close on September 13. Those who change their minds about voting online won’t be able to cast a paper ballot at their local polling station, but they will have the opportunity to vote via a computer set up on the premises of the election commission.

During the 2020 plebiscite on constitutional amendments, voters in Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod had six days to cast their ballots via the Internet. Those who registered for e-voting but didn’t exercise this right could go to their local polling station and cast a regular paper ballot on the seventh day of voting. To account for such voters, the authorities developed a program for verifying their passport data. However, it left these voters’ personal data publicly accessible. 

Perhaps the most important innovation ahead of the autumn elections is the fact that online voters in Moscow are set to be able to re-cast their vote several times during the three-day voting period. The developers behind Moscow’s electronic voting system announced this possibility earlier; formally, it’s referred to as a “deferred vote,” despite the fact that apparently, voters will not only be able to cast their online ballot later on, but also change their vote. On July 12, the Moscow Mayor’s Office claimed that there would be “no limit on the number of attempts” (this information was removed from its website that same day but is still available via web archive). That said, it specified that online voters will only be able to receive a new electronic ballot three hours after obtaining their previous one. As such, you could technically cast your ballot more than 19 times during the 60-hour voting period, but only your last vote will be counted. 

In conversation with Meduza, Golovchenko explained that Moscow’s working group on remote electronic voting is currently considering several options, including a scenario in which a voter could use the “deferred vote” function multiple times. “At the same time, a user can change their mind within a limited time period and no more than once every few hours. Only the most recent vote will be counted,” he underscored.

This measure would offer insurance in the event that the electronic voting system fails or malfunctions. In addition, it makes vote buying pointless and protects voters from coming under pressure from their employers to vote a certain way — problems associated with electronic voting in Moscow ever since the system was first used in three constituencies during the City Duma elections in 2019.

“This function will allow each voter, even three hours after pressing the ‘vote button’ [...], to go back to their ballot once again and make their choice,” said Artyom Kostyrko, the head of City Hall’s Department for the Development of Smart Projects, during a recent meeting with Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova. In turn, Pamfilova said (as quoted by Kommersant) that while the election commission had approved beta-testing of “deferred voting,” it couldn’t allow any “re-voting.”

“The procedure for conducting electronic voting is approved by the CEC [Central Election Commission]. At the moment, it hasn’t been approved, but the members of the working group aren’t expecting fundamental changes,” Golovchenko told Meduza.

Beta-testing for remote electronic voting will take place in Moscow on July 29–30, Golovchenko said during the video conference. This was confirmed to Meduza by the head of the Moscow Headquarters for Election Monitoring, Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov. According to him, the proposed procedure for beta-testing “deferred voting” is to allow users to re-cast their vote only on the same day that they first voted and no sooner than three hours after they cast their previous ballot.

Allowing online voters to re-cast their ballots has been standard procedure in Estonia for many years. However, less than 4 percent of online voters in Estonia regularly exercise this right. In 2011, one voter changed her mind more than 500 times: she was even contacted to make sure that someone else wasn’t voting on her behalf (the election authorities were able to match the voter in question to the ballots because in Estonia encrypted votes are anonymized only after all Internet voters have cast their ballots). 

The Moscow Mayor’s office, which is in charge of developing the electronic voting system, has yet to publish technical documentation on how “deferred voting” will be implemented. However, this procedure raises questions about how the authorities plan to anonymize electronic votes. In past years, electronic ballots were anonymized at the time they were issued, meaning that you couldn’t connect an online voter’s data to their ballot and thus figure out who actually participated in the election and how they voted. Under the “deferred voting” procedure, there will need to be a way to match online voters with the electronic ballots issued to them, to ensure that only their final vote is counted. 

Text by Denis Dmitriev

Translation by Eilish Hart

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