Reinventing the steal As Russia’s next legislative election draws near, why are the authorities pushing electronic voting so hard?
On September 1, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced that 1.3 million people had registered to vote electronically in the Moscow City Duma election — that’s 17.5 percent of the city’s eligible voters. Last time around, in the 2016 City Duma elections — when electronic registration hadn’t yet been implemented — 35 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. In other words, a full half of the voters who voted in the previous election may vote online in the upcoming election. Meduza explains what this trend means for the future of Russian democracy.
In addition to Moscow, six other regions will allow people to vote electronically in the fall 2021 State Duma elections: Sevastopol, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, Kursk Oblast, Murmansk Oblast, Yaroslavl Oblast, and Rostov Oblast (including residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics with Russian passports).
Russia’s first foray into electronic voting was in the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections, when three of the city’s single-mandate constituencies — No. 1 (Zelenograd), No. 10 (Bibirevo, Lianozovo, and Severnoye), and No. 30 (Chertanovo Tsentralnoye and Yuzhnoye) — allowed it as an experiment. Back then, the system was criticized mostly for the opacity of its voter lists and vote counting. In 2019, about 2 percent of voters in the “experimental” constituencies voted electronically, or 11,200 out of the total 515,000. Ninety-two percent of eligible voters took part in the election.
It might not sound like many, but in the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections, the average voter turnout was 21.77 percent (about the same as it was in the “experimental” constituencies), which means about one in 10 voters voted electronically. In two constituencies (No. 1 and No. 10), the pro-government candidates won with safe majorities. In constituency No. 30, self-nominated candidate Roman Yuneman claimed that electronic voting — which he alleged was conducted with violations — had an impact on election results, and he filed a complaint with the Moscow Election Commission. Yuneman received 9,561 votes, while winner Margarita Rusetskaya received 9,645. If you don’t count electronic votes, however, Yuneman received 9,100 votes, while Rusetskaya received 8,500. The Moscow Election Commission conducted a recount before declaring that no violations had occurred.
In the 2020 plebiscite on constitutional amendments, online voting occurred in two regions: Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod Oblast. A total of 1,190,726 applications for electronic voting were submitted, 1.05 million of them in Moscow (about 15 percent of Moscow voters).
At the time, Meduza reported that city employees were strongly encouraged to “vote online as much as possible.” The results were full of anomalies: in Troitsky Administrative Okrug, for example, 39 percent of voters — 36,895 people — applied to vote electronically. And in one of the region’s precincts, the number of electronic voting applicants exceeded the number of voters in that precinct by 217 percent.
In 2021, electronic voting was available in most regions during the United Russia primaries for legislative assemblies and the State Duma. Sources from inside the “party of power” told Meduza that the party leadership initially aimed for 15 percent of primary votes to take place electronically (through the government services portal “Gosuslugi”), but later adjusted their target to 10 percent.
According to the party’s official data, overall, a little more than 10 percent of all eligible voters throughout Russia actually voted in the primaries (approximately the same turnout level seen in Moscow). Like in 2019, many municipal workers and employees of large corporations were forced to participate; some voters who didn’t vote in the primaries logged onto Gosuslugi to find that a vote had nevertheless been recorded on their behalf. The Finance Ministry’s press service confirmed to Kommersant that there had indeed been “attempts to commit fraudulent acts with regard to individual accounts” on the portal.
According to multiple experts Meduza spoke to, United Russia used the primaries to test-drive its get-out-the-vote capabilities. “We considered holding the primaries offline. It’s simpler and it’s what we’re used to, but when they gave us target numbers, we realized we’d need to open about 300 polling stations. That would be expensive, so we preferred to move online,” said a source from one of United Russia’s regional offices.
“You can vote directly from your HR manager’s computer!”
In August 2021, reports of municipal officials urging their employees to register for online voting started to appear in Moscow. In Yaroslavl Oblast, the Tutayev city voting commission reported similar stories of alleged forced online voting registration to the prosecutor’s office.
As usual, electronic voting in Moscow will take place on the platform mos.ru, while in rural areas, it will take place on the Gosuslugi government services portal. Meduza’s correspondent spoke with sources close to local authorities in regions slated to take part in online voting.
One source said his territory has been tasked with ensuring electronic votes make up at least 10 percent of the total votes, as administrative resources there are fairly weak. “The KPI [key performance indicator] itself is pretty low, but it’s not likely we’ll reach it — we’ll probably end up with 5 percent,” he said.
As far as the actual reason for getting municipal employees to sign up for online voting, the source claimed it’s “to monitor administrative mobilization on an additional level,” as “the polls are open for three days — we can regularly check and see who’s already voted, and then remind those who haven’t,” he said.
A source close to United Russia leaders in another region was more cynical about the purpose of electronic voting. “[The purpose is] an elegant corporate and administrative mobilization effort that I like to call: ‘Vote directly from your HR manager’s computer.’ You go in, log in to your account, and vote — under the watchful eye of your senior comrade,” he said, noting that there are no clear guidelines for how to conduct electronic voting in his region.
In several regions, electronic voting mobilization efforts have come with specific instructions to vote for specific candidates. In Tutayev, for example, such instructions were sent by email to a state institution’s employees. In another region, where United Russia primaries were conducted online, the instructions were given through messenger apps, social networking sites, or verbally (according to a source close to the party in that region).
In Moscow, state employees have been persistently encouraged to register to vote electronically, but not for any specific candidate. Voting on the mos.ru platform also differs from voting on the Gosuslugi portal in that Moscow voters are allowed to go back and change their vote (referred to as “deferred voting”) as long as voting is ongoing. Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova initially criticized this feature of Moscow elections but has since stopped.
“If we had the chance [to change our votes], we wouldn’t have to remind voters who to vote for over messenger apps or by email — people would just register for electronic voting and that’s it, it would be a free choice,” a source from a United Russia regional office told Meduza.
A source close to the presidential administration said electronic voting is a “new and more reliable way to organize voter mobilization efforts.”
“In life, people might not go anywhere at all, including people who are completely loyal to the authorities. But when voting lasts three days, including one workday (Friday), entire teams of workers and city employees can vote — you just go down the list. The head doctor just gets the report of how many of his employees need to vote electronically. Throughout the day, he shows people the list of how many of the people who agreed to vote have gone ahead and done it. Then they vote right at their workplace,” said the source.
As a result, elections are more decent, honest, and clean — compared to the days when “employees were taken to polling stations in buses,” he added. Social workers can help older people create accounts on Gosuslugi and register them for electronic voting: “Some problems were arising with exit polls, and now, in just three days, we can help all the old ladies get around it using their smartphones.”
According to a source close to the presidential administration, electronic voting makes it possible to “create databases of loyal and dependent voters and then send them through the voting process, without any unnecessary fuss.” He explained that by “send them through” he meant organizing mass voting campaigns that can be controlled without attracting too much attention. “No ballots, no ballot-stuffing, no election monitors, none of those things that destroy legitimacy,” he said.
Several sources from the presidential administration and United Russia confirmed that an electronic voting mobilization effort is also necessary because the Kremlin hasn’t deviated from its plans to ensure the “party of power” wins a constitutional majority in the State Duma.
Two sources said the party’s desired outcome is “50+” percent, though they have different goals for different regions. “In areas where people are prone to protesting or where administrative resources are weak, it’s enough to get 45 percent of the vote, but for most regions, the goal is 55-60 percent, while in some, we need 70 percent,” one source said, referring to the Kremlin’s targets for the second half of August.
One regional United Russia source told Meduza that in August, the party lowered its targets to 35 percent in several regions. According to data provided by a high-ranking United Russia figure close to City Hall, the party’s KPI in Moscow is 40-45 percent. “Administration and corporate mobilization will be implemented everywhere, databases are being compiled, strategies are being tested, and this should make up at least 40 percent of voter turnout. That includes electronic voting,” a source close to the presidential administration told Meduza.
“Only the developers know who has access”
According to Stanislav Andreichuk, co-chair of the independent election monitoring movement “Golos,” the figure Sergey Sobyanin gave for the number of people registered to vote electronically in Moscow (17.5 percent) is “unnatural.”
“To believe that 17.5 percent of eligible voters have already registered, when the expected voter turnout isn’t even very high, is just not possible. And that includes the idea that half of Moscow voters will vote online. That’s just not something that happens in reality,” Andreichuk told Meduza.
He also mentioned a service, recently launched in Moscow, that tracks the submission of electronic voting applications. “It’s a serious step forward in the development of DEG monitoring since the application stage of online voting has effectively been hidden until now. A person can log in to his mos.ru account and check to see what applications have been submitted in his name. Unfortunately, the service is only for Moscow’s electronic voting system and for applications submitted through mos.ru. I don’t foresee this kind of service coming to the Central Election Commission’s federal electronic voting system or for Gosuslugi,” he said.
In a recent interview with Meduza, SmartVote coordinator Leonid Volkov called DEG “an absolute crime against elections.” “It’s City Hall’s only chance to somehow save the situation in Moscow since they want to win the entire region despite United Russia’s 15-percent approval rating. And they don’t want to rig the vote at polling stations, so they came up with a way to do it by means of electronic voting,” said Volkov, who nevertheless called electronic voting a “lesser evil” than not voting in elections.
Still, the Moscow government maintains that every voter will have complete control over the electronic voting process at all stages.
Artyom Kostyrko, the head of City Hall’s Department for the Development of Smart Projects, told Meduza that it would be impossible to register an electronic voting account for a mos.ru user without that user’s knowledge.
“First of all, when a person applies for online voting, he’ll initially need to enter a code from a text message, and then he’ll receive an email notification. Second, in his account, there’s a history of all the applications he’s ever sent in for any service, including for electronic voting. That way, a person can see that he’s applied, and receive notifications that the application has been registered, process, and accepted (or rejected),” he said.
Kostyrko also said that users track all actions in their accounts, which is why it would be impossible to change someone’s vote without them knowing about it. “You apply for electronic voting — boom, you get an email. You login into the system on election day — boom, you get a text. You get a ballot — boom, another text. That’s why it’s impossible to vote on behalf of someone electronically without their knowledge,” he explained.
“If anyone is worried about somebody using his account, he can do what every specialist in the world recommends: use good digital hygiene. Use a strong password, and turn on email and text message notifications for everything that happens inside your account,” said Kostyrko.
But Stanislav Andreichuk hasn’t ruled out the possibility of the authorities monitoring electronic voting applications. “Everybody who can access the system can also see who’s registered and who’s voted, and only the software developers know who has access.”
“Local informal election administrators behave differently in different regions. Some try to ensure wins for ‘their’ administrative candidates. But overall, online voting organizers’ main task this year is to legitimize it in the eyes of voters as much as possible so that in 2024, they can implement it across the country,” said Andreichuk.
Translation by Sam Breazeale