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Perfecting the art of election fraud How the Kremlin hopes to streamline its vote rigging in Putin’s next run

Source: Meduza
Sergey Karpukhin / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Early next year, barring unforeseen circumstances, Vladimir Putin will run for his fifth term as Russia’s president. To send a clear message to Russians and to the world about the president’s popularity, his administration’s political bloc plans to use new tactics to ensure his biggest win yet (by official figures), including expanding the use of electronic voting terminals to track reliable pro-regime voters. But building out the infrastructure necessary for this scheme has presented some challenges: among other things, according to a source close to the Kremlin, sanctions have made it difficult to acquire some of the technology the terminals require. Meanwhile, the Kremlin appears to be procrastinating on other aspects of the election, such as Putin’s campaign message and his final set of opponents. Meduza’s special correspondent Andrey Pertsev explains.

In Russia’s upcoming presidential election in March 2024, the Kremlin has every intention of setting new records for both voter turnout and the number of votes recorded for Vladimir Putin. Official figures are expected to show more than 80 percent of voters supporting the incumbent president, while the authorities are counting on 70–80 percent of the electorate showing up to the polls.

To get these results, the Putin administration’s political bloc plans to rely largely on corporate mobilization, or the enlistment of voters who are directly dependent on the government (such as civil servants, employees at state enterprises, and workers at major corporations) to cast ballots in favor of Putin’s reelection. To that end, the authorities are considering installing electronic voting terminals with domestic passport scanners in certain regions. These devices were first used in the Moscow mayoral election in September 2023: three of the terminals were put in each polling station, while each commission was also given three mobile versions of the terminals for at-home voting.

A clear mission

‘The task is simple: get 80 percent’ How Putin’s administration plans to win his next ‘landslide election victory’

A clear mission

‘The task is simple: get 80 percent’ How Putin’s administration plans to win his next ‘landslide election victory’

The Moscow city government’s website described the process of voting at an electronic voting terminal as follows:

At the polling station, voters must go up to any electoral commission employee, put their passport on the scanner so that it finds them in the electronic voter list, which is being used in the capital for the first time, and wait for their passport photo to be verified. Then they can receive an [electronic] ballot at the terminal, mark their choices, and vote.

Many people who showed up to vote were urged by election workers to cast their votes through the electronic terminals, rather than using paper ballots.

“For [voter] mobilization, this is convenient: a person scans their passport to verify it. It’s immediately counted in a mobilization database, whether that’s a corporate database or a state employee database. Then they don’t have to worry about that person. Whereas people who come and don’t scan their passports will be sent on to the polling stations — there will be time for that,” a source close to the Putin administration’s political bloc explained.

Russian Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova has already announced that the 2024 presidential vote will last multiple days. Meduza has previously reported that during past multi-day elections, government employees have been told to cast their ballots in the initial days of voting so that the authorities have time to mobilize additional voters if necessary.

According to a source who spoke to Meduza, digital voting and passport scanning will simplify this process in the presidential election: “[Election workers] will be able to see who hasn’t voted in real time.” He said that in polling stations that don’t yet have electronic voting equipment, election officials may use ordinary office scanners: “In order to get a ballot, voters will have to give their passports to commission employees to be scanned — that’s legal.”

The scanners used in these polling places will be connected to an electronic database of administrative and corporate mobilization data. This will make it easy for the people tasked with getting votes from government-dependent voters to quickly get anyone in their database who hasn’t voted to the polls.

Distorting the field

A pick of straw men When vetting a list of Putin’s ‘sparring partners’ for the 2024 presidential election, the Kremlin insisted on keeping younger candidates out of the race

Distorting the field

A pick of straw men When vetting a list of Putin’s ‘sparring partners’ for the 2024 presidential election, the Kremlin insisted on keeping younger candidates out of the race

But another source close to the Putin administration said that so far, coordinating the operation and getting the necessary technology to all polling stations is proving difficult for the authorities: “The equipment needs to be purchased; nobody has done that yet. And under the conditions of sanctions, it’s just very difficult, [since some of the components of the devices have to be imported]. People also have to be trained.” This source was one of the people who worked on organizing the authorities’ corporate mobilization efforts for the 2018 presidential election.

Why go to all this trouble just for scanning and mobilization? The technology has already been developed, and it works. If they really need to monitor in real time, the personnel departments [of state agencies and corporations] have all of the employees’ information. They could ask election commissions to photograph voter lists several times a day and send them to the [voter mobilization] headquarters. Problem solved.

Additionally, there’s the traditional way of ensuring government-dependent workers vote: having their employers demand they take photos of themselves with their ballots. However, two sources close to the presidential administration told Meduza that this approach is “outdated” and “from the last century.” Now, they said, “we have big data, or at the very least, photos of lists, whereas processing individual photos that people send to their superiors in real time is impossible.”

Despite these difficulties, one of the sources said that the use of electronic voting terminals is sure to be widespread in March’s vote: “Electronic voting makes it possible to provide any result they need. They understand this well in Moscow.” However, as Meduza has previously reported, voters in other regions are generally reluctant to register for electronic voting, and this has caused headaches for many regional governments as Moscow has assigned them targets for the number of people who should vote electronically.

“Moscow showed what can be done in this situation: a person who doesn’t trust the remote voting system for whatever reason — not even necessary because they suspect the results will be falsified, but perhaps because they’re nervous about sharing their personal data online — votes offline, but their vote ends up in the remote voting system. And from that point on, you can do whatever you want — it’s a wonderful resource, very valuable,” one source explained.

In the 2021 State Duma elections, candidates who were not from the ruling United Russia party won in offline polling places in most of the single-mandate districts in Moscow, but after the electronic voting results were added, United Russia candidates won everywhere. Members of the opposition and experts say that there’s no way to independently monitor electronic voting, and that the authorities use it to redistribute votes in favor of their chosen candidates.

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One source who spoke to Meduza said he expects the government to continue conducting experiments with scanners and electronic voting at polling places in Moscow, and perhaps also in some other large cities, such as Novosibirsk or Yekaterinburg: “It’s too late for them to set up too many electronic voting terminals, but Moscow can share its equipment, like it did with its optical scan voting systems and is doing now with public transport.”

According to the source, the “Moscow electronic sultanate” will ultimately defeat the “regional analogues,” which yield anomalously high results for the Kremlin’s candidates. In other words, falsifications involving ballot stuffing, data manipulation, carousel voting, and coercing government employees into voting will become a thing of the past as those methods are increasingly supplanted by tactics involving electronic voting.

A source close to the head of United Russia’s Moscow branch told Meduza that he doesn’t believe the authorities will “extrapolate electronic voting terminals throughout the country,” but that he does think the city authorities “have the desire” to use them in Moscow for the presidential election. “15,000 devices operating like clockwork — it’s the perfect defense against double voting. This is the first time this technology is being used in the world — it’s our innovation,” he said proudly.

In the last presidential election, according to official data, Putin performed worse in Moscow than the national average (70 percent of votes with 61 percent turnout in the capital vs. 76 percent of votes with 67 percent turnout for the country as a whole). A source close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the electronic voting terminals will allow Moscow to “give the president a result that’s definitely not worse than the national average, and is most likely better.”

Right now, all officials and major businessmen are racking their brains: how can we invest in [Putin’s] campaign in a way that he notices? And [Moscow Mayor Sergey] Sobyanin can [use electronic voting terminals to] show that Moscow has become loyal, at least by official figures. Then the electronic voting terminals will be seen as a success story and can be scaled up.

Meanwhile, however, the Kremlin still hasn’t defined the ideological contours of Putin’s campaign. A source close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the president’s office was originally planning a kick-off party for United Russia and the “systemic opposition” parties for late September, but that it was postponed until earlier October, and that now it will be held “closer to the end of October, or, in the worst case scenario, in December.” Two sources from these establishment parties confirmed this to Meduza. According to one source close to the administration, “the president himself has put the situation on pause.” “He loves to do everything at the last moment, like an intelligence agent — so that nobody can know his plans and take advantage of them,” he added.

Additionally, the Putin administration has not chosen the final lineup of election participants. Meduza reported earlier on the “conservative” scenario for the campaign, in which only older members of parliamentary parties would be allowed to run. The newspaper Vedomosti called this the “main” scenario, but noted that the administration is keeping in mind that a “liberal candidate” could still join the race (the newspaper speculated that Alexey Venediktov, the former editor-in-chief of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, could potentially fill this role).

Boris Nadezhdin, a 60-year-old former State Duma deputy from the Union of Right Forces party, has also expressed his intention to run. He denies that his candidacy is being planned in coordination with the Kremlin, but a person who knows him told Meduza that the Putin administration did make such an offer, “though without clear guarantees of nomination.”

At the same time, two sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the prospect of a “liberal” candidate remains “very hypothetical”: “Everything will be contingent on Vladimir Putin.”

“The president’s campaign scenario has not yet been finalized. He likes to keep people in suspense. As a result, everything will slow down and will end up being somewhat chaotic,” a source close to the Putin administration told Meduza.

Story by Andrey Pertsev

English-language version by Sam Breazeale

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