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‘Unlimited potential for fraud’ Online voting is the key to Russia’s election rigging, but the next presidential election will require gerrymandering too
The Russian authorities have decided the reduce the number of election polling stations available to voters. In Moscow, ahead of the mayoral election planned for September, officials are slashing the number of municipal polling locations by almost 40 percent, as confirmed by Tsentrizberkom (“TsIK”), Russia’s state election authority. In other regions, the reduction is less stark, reaching about 10 percent.
Explaining the decision, TsIK appealed to the need to “strengthen the public’s control over the elections” and to “reduce organizational expenditures.” Fewer polling stations will be easier to monitor for the parties involved, the officials say. The agency’s deputy head, Dmitry Reut, also suggests that slashing the number of polling locations in Moscow is natural, given the popularity of online voting. According to Reut, large numbers of urban voters prefer to cast their ballots remotely, and fewer people actually show up to vote in person.
Electronic voting was implemented in Moscow during the State Duma elections in 2021. A year later, it was once again an option for city council elections. Both times, counting procedures for electronic ballots were entirely opaque, provoking numerous scandals. During the Duma election, for example, opposition candidates leading the paper-ballot vote in several single-mandate districts suddenly lost to United Russia’s candidates once online voting was “taken into account.” The opposition’s attempt to question the results came to naught.
A United Russia insider who spoke to Meduza explains the shrinking number of local polling stations as a consequence of major developments in “electronic services,” suggesting that in-person voting is less in demand now than it used to be. Another source close to the Kremlin’s political team says the government is intent on expanding online voting:
It’s a two-way street. They chalked up tons of votes to electronic voting in the Duma and city elections, and now they can cut the polling stations. Then, when the share of online votes increases, they can say they were right to cut them, since everyone likes voting online, and then attribute increased online turnout to the cuts.
Two political spin doctors who previously worked with United Russia candidates in nationwide and regional campaigns say that reducing the number of polling locations will help the Mayor’s Office get Muscovites accustomed to online voting. People who like to vote in person, they explain, will have to take the extra trouble to find out their new, post-reduction polling location. They will also have to consider the risk of spending more time standing in line if they choose to go and cast paper ballots.
Another political consultant working with the government expects that polling-location cuts will reduce in-person turnout by as much as 25 percent. He illustrates his argument with an example from his past work in a regional election:
Our task was the kill the turnout to get the best possible result for United Russia. As a solution to this challenge, we rearranged the voting districts’ borders. The habitual pattern in the voters’ heads had been broken: they now had to find out where they were supposed to go. The calculation was that it would be easier for people just to stay home. And it worked. Besides, those who didn’t check the polling address and just showed up at the old one would arrive there, hear that they’re registered at a different location — and give up with a spit and go home.
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The upcoming Moscow mayoral election is not going to be an easy task, the same speaker anticipates. “When electing the mayor, we have to show a respectable turnout,” he says. (In 2013 and 2018, “respectable” meant around 30 percent.) “But if you start herding everyone towards polling locations, no one will show up to the presidential election,” he explains, referring to the spring 2024 election, where “the task is to show a record turnout.” And while achieving the needed turnout with online votes is well and good in a mayoral election, electing a president this way would not be a great look.
Still, electronic voting is immensely advantageous to the current regime. All the political consultants who spoke with Meduza agree that online polling “presents unlimited potential for falsification.” Election-law attorney Andrey Buzin, who previously managed the voter advocacy organization Golos, confirms this assessment: “Electronic voting is not a controllable voting method in principle. Other methods can be monitored by grassroots representatives, but electronic voting cannot.”
Having fewer polling stations, Buzin points out, can also be useful to state propaganda, since it’ll be easier for TV crews, for example, to record footage of long lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots. It’ll also be easier to staff polling stations with United Russia loyalists. “The reduction of polling locations,” Buzin explains, “is certainly an element of the degradation of the election process in Russia, but it’s not the main element. What’s central is the reduction of political competition.”
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