Author: Dmitry Nesterov
On May 24-30, 2021, remote electronic voting (REV) was held in relation to the selection of candidates on behalf of the "United Russia" party both to the State Duma (VIII convocation) and regional authorities (hereinafter referred to as the United Russia primaries1). In 43 constituencies, voting in the primaries was carried out exclusively in the electronic form, whereas in 42 regions a mixed form of voting was used2.
The ruling party primaries attracted the attention of e-voting experts. This happened mainly due to the use of authorization methods that are also applied in the current Internet voting systems employed during real elections (and would be used when voting for State Duma in September of 2021). The detected falsification of the results, as well as the facts of interference in the electronic voting process showcase, first and foremost, the vulnerabilities of the authorization system. Since Internet voting in the United Russia primaries is considered a simplified model of Internet voting in real elections, it is worth keeping in mind that there is a chance that similar falsifications could occur in the upcoming State Duma elections.
Since no meaningful technical information about the Internet voting system for the primaries was made available, as well as no tools for its direct control, experts and observers had to rely on public information from the primaries' organizers and participants. They also observed the processes related to the preparation and implementation of voting. The scenarios and mechanisms of the process turned out to be different for primaries of Moscow and primaries in the other regions of Russia.
While observing electronic voting at primaries in Moscow, significant discrepancies have been found. For instance:
- Turnout: United Russia claimed that in Moscow 633,000 voters had registered for the primaries' e-voting, out of which 473,812 or 6% of the capital's voters turned out. These two numbers are unrealistic for the region with one of the lowest levels of support of the ruling party and where candidates of United Russia frequently run as independents without indicating the party's brand. This is also related to the absence in the region of a powerful administrative resource and information campaign on the primaries in the region.
- Results: Published (albeit inconsistently) results related to Moscow clearly demonstrated the implausibility of the distribution of votes at and among the polling stations. A statistical evaluation of the official results shows that the real turnout in Moscow was significantly lower than the declared one. The manipulations included possible "virtual ballot stuffing" on more than 3/4 of the polling stations, artificially increased turnout, and "drawing up" of votes for candidates. Experts estimate that 99% of votes for the first 22 candidates on the United Russia party list were falsified3 while the amount of falsified votes for candidates in single-mandate constituencies reached 80-95% of the votes cast.
In both cases - Moscow and the regions - observers have identified serious issues and vulnerabilities of online voting, such as:
- The process of remote identity verification of the voters allows one to cast a vote without truly getting in touch with the election commission. While seemingly convenient for the voter, in this case, both the authenticity of the voter and voluntariness of the vote cannot be certified either by the commission or by observers;
- Moreover, during e-voting, the direct participation of a voter is replaced by a virtual entity tied to the voter's data registered on the public services portal which is lacking public control and is dependent on the non-transparent authorization mechanisms. Unauthorized persons who gain access to the voter's personal account may be able to vote on behalf of this voter without being noticed.
Notably, the scale of apparent interference with electronic voting in Moscow makes us consider the possibility of an insider manipulating either the voter authorization system or the voting system. In the first case, the falsification is carried out by a person who has internal access to the online portal of Moscow public services and who votes multiple times, accessing voters' accounts ("virtual ballot stuffing"). In the second case, the falsifier must have access to the United Russia voting system in order to manipulate the result either through the voting system itself or simply by publishing the desired "results" of voting. The hypothesis of artificial increase of the results through the "virtual ballot stuffing" by a person with access to Moscow's government portal https://www.mos.ru/ looks plausible.
Monitoring the electronic voting in regional primaries, conducted through the Federal online public services portal https://www.gosuslugi.ru, allowed observers to identify another vulnerability and record multiple cases of interference with voters' accounts on the portal.
Additionally, this year voting (including electronic voting) is expected to be extended to three days. Observers warn that a longer duration of the vote is likely to increase the scale of misuse of administrative resources and control over voting, primarily enforced by the employers of state-controlled enterprises and public institutions.
And while during the real elections the organization of remote electronic voting is more complicated than the one used in the primaries, there are no insurmountable obstacles if there's a strong administrative will to manipulate the results. Therefore, we may not discard the possibility that the primaries had been used as a testing ground for future manipulation of the electronic vote.
Last but not least, both extended voting and e-voting make the monitoring of the election extremely difficult. In the last chapter of this article, experts' recommendations on how to improve the e-voting system to avoid large-scale manipulations during the upcoming State Duma elections are provided.
On the so-called Joint Election Day (September 19, 2021, when the elections to the State Duma, as well as to a number of regional and local bodies are going to be held), Internet voting will be available in seven regions of Russia, e.g. in Kursk, Murmansk, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov and Yaroslavl regions. In the city of Sevastopol4, the voting will be carried out using the federal system for the Remote Electronic Voting (hereinafter referred to as REV), developed in 2020 by Rostelecom. In Moscow, online voting is going to be implemented through the Moscow REV system, developed by the IT department of the Moscow government and applied for the first time in 2019 during the elections to the Moscow city Duma.
In elections involving an electronic voting system, a voter has the right to decide in advance on how to vote – in a polling station or via the Internet. There are no restrictions on participation in Internet voting. Due to active advertising and administrative pressure forcing voters to participate in e-voting, a significant number of citizens are expected to use this mechanism. The expected share of Moscow voters who would vote via the Internet could amount to approx. 40% this year5. However, due to the lack of transparency in both hardware and software of the REV, as well as due to the non-publicity of the voting procedure, neither the electoral commissions conducting the elections nor the election participants can verify the integrity of the vote and check the correctness of the system operation. This raises many questions from experts and provokes discontent in many political and public associations.
This year, voting in elections (including electronic voting) is to last three days. This duration will increase both the likelihood and scale of administrative control over voting, enforced primarily by employers of state-owned enterprises.
How Russian systems of Internet voting are built
From the organizational point of view, a voter must go through two stages when voting via the Internet. At the preliminary stage (before the voting days), an application to participate in the electronic voting shall be submitted. It shall pass a review procedure. If the application is approved, the voter is allowed to enter the REV system through the voting site in order to receive an electronic ballot and vote.
Both at the stage of applying for an online vote and receiving an electronic ballot, systems must ensure that the identified voter is processed. This is the reason why the latter must pass authorization through one of the two state systems. Any Russian citizen who has a "complete" account on the Unified Portal of State and Municipal Services (hereinafter referred to as EPGU) https://gosuslugi.ru/ can be authorized by the electronic voting system through the Unified Identification and Authentication System (ESIA), which processes the data stored in the federal accounts of the public services portal. Residents who are permanently registered in Moscow can undergo verification through a similar authorization service, which is based on the citizen data stored on the portal of state and municipal services of Moscow, which, in turn, is deployed by the portal of the Mayor and Government of Moscow https://mos.ru.
During the voting, Russians (except for Moscow residents) receive a ballot and vote through the federal REV system of Rostelecom6. Regardless of their authorization method, Moscow residents will be redirected to the Moscow REV system of the https://mos.ru portal to receive a ballot and vote. In both REV systems, an electronic ballot is issued to an authorized voter. Later the voter must be anonymized. The anonymized encrypted ballot shall be accepted by the system and placed in storage deployed on the blockchain technologies7. At the end of the voting, the blockchain ballots get decrypted, and the results of the electronic voting are automatically summed up. All votes of those who voted through the REV systems refer to the electronic polling stations, developed for the specific elections.
At election time, public service portals will not just be used for voter authentication. One can address the REV once logged in to their personal account on the portal of public services. The same portal is used to submit an application to the "Mobile voter" if a voter wants to vote offline outside of their place of registration. At the stage of application verification, the data related to the passport and place of residence of a citizen (stored in their account on the portal of public services) is compared to the data of the voter registry of the Central Election Commission (hereinafter referred to as CEC). The application is approved if no significant data discrepancies are identified. The voter can start voting either by accessing their personal account on the public services portal or once redirected from the voting site to the portal for their authorization.
This means a voter can cast a vote without truly getting in touch with the election commission. Apart from some convenience for the voter, this process has a significant downside. It turns out that both the authenticity and voluntariness of the voter cannot be certified either by the commission or by observers.
Moreover, during elections, a voter is replaced by a virtual entity tied to the voter's data registered on the public services portal which is lacking public control and is dependent on the non-transparent authorization mechanisms of the REV. Unauthorized persons who gain access to the voter's personal account may be able to vote on behalf of this voter without being detected.
What happened during the United Russia primaries
The formal goal of the United Russia primaries was to determine the candidates that the party would nominate for the elections to be held on the Common voting day (September 19, 2021). The primaries were held in an open format. Thus, any Russian citizen eligible to vote could vote after a preliminary registration in the voting system.
Informally, the federal authorities of Russia had set the goal to update and measure mobilization possibilities in the regions. In addition to the supporters of the party in power, an important mobilization tool consists of the so-called "administrative mobilization". It becomes obvious when employees of state-owned companies, municipal institutions, large enterprises, and some socially dependent groups of the population are forced to participate in the voting in one way or another. Moreover, both primaries and their results were used as an additional opportunity to advertise United Russia's candidates and its brand in the media.
In order to conduct Internet voting in the primaries of United Russia, a proprietary voting system of the party was used. To authorize a voter, both the federal and Moscow systems of public services were employed. These two systems will also be used for Internet voting in the upcoming elections.
To vote in the primaries, voters had to apply in advance, so that their identity and the right to vote could be electronically verified by the public services portals. On the voting days, the public services portals had to confirm the identity of the voter so that a ballot could be issued. One of the simplifications of this system was that, unlike voting in the elections, verification SMS messages were not sent upon receipt of the ballot.
Since there was no meaningful technical information about the Internet voting system for the primaries, as well as no tools for its direct control, experts and observers had to rely on public information provided by the primaries' organizers and participants. They also observed the processes related to the preparation and implementation of voting. The scenarios and mechanisms of the process turned out to be different if we compare the primaries of Moscow with the primaries in the other regions of Russia.
Below, we analyse these cases separately.
Preparation for voting in Moscow
3 months before the primaries (February-March), an order was issued by the Moscow state-owned sector. It required state employees to add or update personal information on the www.mos.ru accounts of the Moscow public services platform. This time the reasons were not explained, and, based on last years' experience, there was a suspicion that preparations for online voting within the upcoming elections were carried out, as only users with "complete" accounts could participate in the e-voting. The unusually early timing of the order (6 months before the State Duma elections) may suggest the preparation of administrative mobilisation for voting in the United Russia primaries as well.
However, no noticeable administrative pressure exercised over the Moscow residents and prompting them to participate in the primaries was registered.
In Moscow, administrative mobilizations could be observed during the last major regional elections. Therefore, single reports prompting people to vote in the primaries (mainly received from the municipal employees of housing and communal services), as well as isolated messages recommending to participate in the primaries, reported on behalf of the municipal institutions, cannot be considered as systemic mobilization. This situation was quite unusual if compared to the Russian regions, where tools of administrative pressure forcing people to vote in the United Russia primaries were manifested intensively.
Silence about the upcoming primaries on the regional political and administrative agenda seemed strange, also because unlike the elections to the Moscow city Duma in 2019, most of the administrative candidates to the State Duma were decided to be put on United Russia party lists. In these cases, primaries turn out to be a convenient media springboard for the candidates.
On the second day of the seven-day primaries voting (and quite unexpectedly), detailed data on the number of voters were announced. It was claimed that in Moscow 633,000 voters had signed up for the intraparty procedure. At the end of the voting, 473,812 persons were announced to have voted in Moscow8, which is more than 6% of all captol's voters. These two numbers are unrealistic for the region with one of the lowest levels of support of the government and where the United Russia brand is rarely used in supporting its candidates who often run as independents. It is related to the absence of powerful administrative employment and hardly any information campaign on the primaries in the region.
However, even more unexpected were the results of the e-voting, which were published in the middle of the night and then abruptly hidden. Surprising was the very publication of the real election results, which contained accurate details of every polling station (voters were distributed by polling stations based on their residence). In the party's Guidelines For the Primaries9, publication of such detailed data was not explicitly provided for. Published results related to Moscow clearly showed the implausibility of the distribution of votes at and among the polling stations. First statistical studies confirmed the suspicions that the actual turnout in the Moscow primaries may have been significantly lower than the declared one.
Moscow: falsification of the primaries results in relation to the State Duma candidates10
Statistics pertinent to the results in Moscow has the following features:
- "Ballot stuffing" appears to be present in more than 3/4 of the polling stations. The share of the polling stations without obvious additions of votes is less than a quarter of the total amount.
- In the absolute majority of polling stations, the artificial inflation of votes is made by adding the exact same number of votes to a series of candidates. This is the reason why the graphs of the distribution of votes look like a "ladder".
- At polling stations with registered falsifications, the ballot stuffing could be found both in relation to the regional list of candidates and to the single-mandate candidates.
- The regular vote, which has a natural random pattern in the charts, covers a smaller part of the charts. This natural course of voting is covered by an artificially "drawn ladder" of candidate votes, characterised by small, correlated groups of voters, which indicates, according to experts, the voting of organised groups of voters.
When talking about the elections to the State Duma, Moscow is divided into 15 single-mandate constituencies. Voting in the United Russia primaries was conducted both for single-mandate candidates and for the regional party list. There were 8 to 28 candidates nominated by the party in all the constituencies. 238 candidates took part in the voting for a seat in the Moscow regional party list. Depending on their address, Moscow voters were assigned to 3,398 primaries sections, corresponding to a precinct elections commission (PEC) in regular elections.
Within the framework of the regional list, the results of voting show a distinctive ladder of the same number of ballots "stuffed" for several candidates in one station. The "stuffing" has a scale from tens to hundreds of votes for each candidate of the series. There is, however, a small number of polling stations where the series overlap. The maximum "stuffing" at a single polling station amounts to 418 votes for a series of 22 candidates (PEC No. 77.069.32). This station corresponds to one of the PECs in the building of Pyatnitskoe shosse, 42, area 2 (School No. 1191).
The number of candidates in such a series also differs from station to station. There is a series of identical numbers of votes related to up to 27 candidates per station. A large number of stations are "stuffed" with 8, 14, 22, and 23 votes respectively for select candidates. For example, in 950 Moscow polling stations, the artificial increase of votes was made for 22 candidates, while only in 800 polling stations no obvious "ballot stuffing" was registered.
Since participants of the primaries could vote for several candidates in single-mandate constituencies, there was "virtual ballot stuffing" observed for up to 3 candidates parallelly with the same number of votes "stuffed" for several candidates.
The percentage of PEC where ballot stuffing was registered varies from district to district. Overall, the ballot stuffing was absent only in 42 % of polling stations. In the 201st Nagatinsky constituency, only in the 25% of polling stations no obvious signs of artificial inflation of votes were registered.
The number of votes artificially added to the winning candidates in single-mandate constituencies also varies. For example, in constituency No. 201 Svetlana Razvorotneva has only 9% of votes cast by real voters, while in constituency No. 203 Yevgeny Nifantiev has registered approx. 10% of "real" votes. However, Tatyana Butskaya from the 204th Perovsky constituency has about 15% of real votes, which may indicate an increased amount of administrative personnel that had attracted people to vote in this constituency, a more successful campaign, or an improvement of the falsification methods and "stuffing" algorithms that have been used to trigger a large number of "stuffed" votes.
Probably the most "ballot-stuffed" "winning" candidate is Karen Aperian, who represented the 208th Central single-mandate constituency. He has around 92% of votes that appear "stuffed". Aperian stepped in the election campaign "at the last minute" and apparently played the role of a technical candidate, while the real "administrative candidate" in the Central constituency was Oleg Leonov, a public figure with close ties to the Russian authorities.
Taking into account the inevitable error of the estimates, we can state that the percentage of artificially added votes for the winning candidates in the single-mandate constituencies falls within the range of 80-95% of all the votes.12
However, if we have a look at the share of "unstuffed" votes within the results of the winning candidates based on the party lists, these look even more "impressive". According to the estimates of the electoral statistician Sergei Shpil'kin, the share of falsification among the first 22 leading candidates from the Moscow party list ranges from 97% to 99%.13
This evaluation, however, does not include the number of voters on whose behalf a fake vote was cast by insiders who have an access to the voting system. A simple yet robust evaluation model has to be further developed to provide reliable data.14 Below we provide a general analysis of this issue.
Electronic voting in the primaries, Russian regions (outside Moscow)
Statistical methods allow us to meaningfully evaluate voting results in the regions, where results were published on the level of a single polling station. In some regions, traces of falsified results are also visible, but they are not similar to the Moscow ones and do not raise such an amount of doubt.
However, remote electronic voting in the primaries conducted outside Moscow has made it possible to document another vulnerability of the Russian Internet voting system, which is also related to the online public services portals. Namely, there were multiple cases of interference with voters' accounts on the Federal state services portal https://gosuslugi.ru.
The first reports appeared before the start of voting. On May 12, Diana Zabelina noticed15 that her account had been accessed, as she received an SMS related to the change of her phone number. Zabelina even managed to find the hacker. She noticed that while an unauthorized person was inside her account, a login to the United Russia data processing centre was made in order to vote in the primaries.
In the comments to her post, several people from different Russian regions shared similar experiences. For example, Natalya Kantur from St. Petersburg found out that her account had been used to take part in the primaries, as she received an SMS from United Russia with a request to fill in passport details in the questionnaire.
However, the majority of reports stating unauthorized access with a request to participate in the United Russia primaries was registered during and after the voting. Such reports came from several regions of Russia.
If a hacker did not change the current phone number (which is not required for voting in the primaries) but carefully filled in the voter's data in the questionnaire on the United Russia website, the real users were not able to notice that somebody voted on their behalf. However, the account history tracks all authorization attempts in the United Russia voting system.
The media drew attention to the issue in view of a Facebook post published by the journalist of Echo Moskwy (Echo of Moscow), Arina Borodina on June 2. Once logged into her electronic public services portal account, she found out that instead of her Moscow address, an address in Chelyabinsk was indicated. The change of address was made imperceptibly in order to vote in the primaries of the Chelyabinsk list of candidates.
On June 4, the operator of the electronic public services portal, the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media acknowledged the issue16 of unauthorized access to the accounts of the Federal System of Public Services. The United Russia party asked17 the Ministry of Internal Affairs to review the reported cases.
Comments under the abovementioned first Facebook posts contain about a dozen pieces of documented evidence. The true scale of the phenomenon remains unknown since neither the operator of public services nor the political party provided quantitative data on similar cases.
The information known at the moment does not allow us to exclude the version that "hacking" of public services accounts in favour of certain candidates could be carried out by specialists who are not associated with the administrators of the electronic public services portal. Thus, we cannot exclude the fact that the attack on the voting system was performed from outside the authorization and voting system.
Theoretically, "leaks" of users' credentials linked to the accounts of public platforms could be used by third parties. However, this is not an obvious explanation, since no noticeable leaks of the portal's password databases are detected. Technical experts point out that the databases available on the black market turn out to be incorrect or irrelevant. Methods of email plus password matching from the leaked databases of other websites could also be used since people often use the same credentials on multiple websites.
In any case, the multiplicity of facts of unauthorized access means that the EPGU does not have an effective system to prevent user accounts from unauthorized access/amendments of personal data. Technical support of the EPGU also could not provide prompt assistance to citizens asking to resolve issues with their accounts.
Thus, authorization through the public services portals used to verify the voters is not sufficiently reliable. And this, in turn, is a ground for violation of the electoral rights of citizens.
Internet voting risks: can similar electoral frauds happen again?
Falsification of the e-voting results in the primaries of United Russia in Moscow may have different explanations.
The case of a large-scale external attack on the authorization and voting systems is unlikely since it cannot pass unnoticed by the administrators and security specialists. Moreover, unauthorized interference of this magnitude cannot be carried out during one voting week.
Massive external hacking of public services accounts and subsequent voting is also unlikely since there would be traces of actions taken inside the accounts of citizens. Such traces were not found on the Moscow portal of public services www.mos.ru.
Realistic explanations of such falsification presuppose the presence of an insider manipulating either the voter authorization system or the voting system.
In the first case, the falsification is carried out by a person who has internal access to the portal of public services and who votes multiple times, accessing voters' accounts ("ballot stuffing"). The voting page of the United Russia primaries indicated that Moscow residents could only vote once logged in the www.mos.ru server. Thus, it is most likely that the Moscow portal of public services was used to "add voters" into the United Russia voting system.
In the second case, an insider must have access to the United Russia voting system in order to falsify the result either through the voting system itself or simply by publishing the desired "results" of voting.
The hypothesis of artificial increase of the results through "virtual ballot stuffing" from www.mos.ru looks more plausible.
Whether it is about having direct access to the system of votes receipt and processing, or about being able to ''blow up'' the desired result, it is still strange to see an unnaturally generated distribution of the "stuffed" votes. Even a falsifier who has little understanding of the election would work on a smoother or at least more even distribution of the votes in all the polling stations, avoiding this randomly distributed quarter of polling stations, whose voting results look undistorted.
If ''blowing up'' of the results in single-mandate constituencies were carried out centrally through the United Russia voting system, it would be logical to expect a recreation of the Moscow algorithm in other Russian regions. However, the Moscow pattern looks unique.18 At the same time, Moscow is the only region with its own voting authorization system controlled by the regional authority. It means that the falsification could have been organized at the regional level, not involving the organizers of the voting.
The factor of non-coordination also cannot be ruled out. If the "virtual ballot stuffing" was carried out through the Moscow authorization system, the organizers of the falsification could possibly use a simple yet unnatural algorithm to generate summary results, having failed to take into account that the results of the primaries would be published per polling station.
In the ''grandiose'' Moscow falsification, attention is drawn to the coincidence of the total share of the remaining polling stations where no obvious "ballot stuffing" occurred, as well as the share of voters declared to be willing to vote but who, however, did not vote. A quarter of the polling stations remained without noticeable "ballot stuffing", and slightly more than a quarter of voters did not vote. Such consequences could be caused by an error or failure in the ''blowing'' algorithm, which randomly "stuffed" votes in a polling station, proceeding to the next station once the previous one was done.
Due to the lack of technical information about the primaries voting system, it is difficult to exclude other causes of a statistical anomaly in the Moscow results. However, the hypothesis of manipulations by using data from the accounts of real voters suggests that fewer persons were involved in falsification. In addition to the tactical goal, the process of virtual "ballot stuffing" could be tested for future elections.
Is it possible to implement a similar scheme of "ballot stuffing" through accessing Moscow voters' data during the REV in the real elections?
The REV organizational scheme is more complicated than the one used in the primaries. In particular, at the pre-voting stage, the details of an e-voter should be compared to the registry of the CEC. In order for the "ballot stuffing" to go unnoticed in real elections, it is necessary to avoid situations when a voter who does not know about their electronic voting comes to a real polling station and finds their name crossed out on the voters' list. Another potential obstacle for the transfer of manipulation schemes to the real elections is the confirmation of the ballot issue through an SMS code sent to the voter.
In the event of virtual "ballot stuffing" is a mass phenomenon, this can be considered as public damage to the legitimacy of the vote. However, even in this case, there are no insurmountable obstacles if there's a strong administrative will to manipulate elections. In real elections, especially with a turnout of 30-45%, it is usually enough to add no more than 10-15% of fake votes to guarantee the victory of a specific candidate. Taking into account the traditional state-employed personnel, which also provides a certain percentage of votes in favour of state candidates and parties, the scale of the required "stuffing" is even smaller. Therefore, when organizing voting, the votes of such categories of citizens as those who are permanently abroad, recently deceased, or never vote could suffice. Such an approach can significantly reduce a precondition for a scandal.
In the case of Moscow, where both www.mos.ru (that contains voters' accounts) and the Moscow REV system are located in an integrated technological circuit, the organization of the "vote stuffing" scheme is simplified. Problems related to cancelling or redirecting an SMS for the accounts, as well as issues related to hiding traces of actions ''presumably'' on behalf of the voter in their personal account are technically solvable. Current Russian REV systems are so non-transparent that both the e-voting commission and observers would have little chance of detecting possible "stuffing" based on external signs only.
Since 2019, independent experts have been pointing out the vulnerability of current REV systems to internal attacks, also during the process of voter verification. Commissions, observers, and voters have no opportunity to make sure a specific authorization in the Internet voting system corresponds to a real voter and is not carried out by a third party, which logged into the account of this very voter. This vulnerability generates a real threat for the September elections to the State Duma.
An attempt to massively "stuff ballots" has already been detected in the history of the Moscow REV. This happened before the all-Russian vote on amendments to the Constitution in the summer of 2020. Back then, the investigation of the Dozhd TV19 indicated the scheme of manipulation of accounts registration on www.mos.ru. Passport details of retired Moscow residents, who did not use the website, were largely used in that case. It is noteworthy that the security mechanisms of the website did not notice the massive creation of suspicious accounts. An official reaction appeared only after the scandal was publicly disclosed.
Fears of electronic fraud in the context of the upcoming elections are also fuelled by leaks from the authorities and politically savvy tech community. For example, Meduza's sources close to the authorities believe that the Moscow mayor's office will have no big problems with the results in the upcoming elections to the State Duma.20 "Moscow will host electronic voting on its own platform [www.mos.ru]. The same was used in the elections to the Moscow city Duma. It is being largely counted on. Let the political strategists fool around", a source close to the leadership of United Russia told Meduza.
The federal REV system, which will be used in the upcoming Duma elections in 6 Russian regions, is also not insured against the risks of falsifications on behalf of internal intruders. It involves a larger number of responsible structures, which to some extent complicates the use of the system to falsify the vote. However, the REV system provided by Rostelecom is even less transparent to the expert community.
Mass fraud organized from outside the systems of public services, as well as voting via unauthorized access to voter accounts, are unlikely to occur during the State Duma elections. This is due to additional protection mechanisms of voting, the likelihood of detection, risk of criminal liability for the organizers, and difficulties in scaling the scheme to huge elections. However, in the elections of deputies of a regional and local scale, the application of such schemes cannot be ruled out.
Possible improvements of the REV
It is important to note that the existing Russian REV systems can be partially improved without significant rework to better meet electoral standards. The overall security of systems can be increased and some of the vulnerabilities can be solved by a number of organizational, procedural, and technical solutions.
Here are some of the recommendations:
- The source code of the systems shall be open for external audit. Public and expert discussion of such a socially significant technology is necessary to build trust and foster technical improvement;
- Integration into the system of tools to check the correct functioning of key nodes. This would allow both the commission and observers to check the reliability of the executable version of the REV and ensure that no interference is attempted from the inside. This will also have a positive impact on trust in the system;
- Compilation of a register of people entitled to access critical components of the REV during its operation. Currently, the electoral commission conducting e-voting has no idea of who has access and can interfere with the system's hardware and software;
- Improvement of transparency of voter lists for online voting. Both the e-voting commission and observers should be able to ensure that real voters are included in the list and that voters who decided to participate in the e-voting are crossed out in the registry books of their polling stations. This is also important to avoid double voting;
- E-voting commissions should be able to additionally verify the identity of voters and voting conditions via direct communication with voters. They should be in power to identify and affect situations involving pressured and controlled voting. The current mechanism of verification/authentication of a voter through their authorization on the portal and issue of a verification SMS cannot adequately certify a person's identity. The absence of controlled and forced voting is also not guaranteed;
- The possibility of high-quality and dependable control of voting by the e-voting commissions is only possible with a commensurate scale of electronic polling stations. It is unacceptable for a commission to be responsible for electronic voting of a whole region or a constituency with hundreds of thousands of voters;
- In conditions when a significant part of voters uses Internet voting, it is recommended to publish the results of electronic voting per each precinct election commission, which could then be compared to the offline results on the respective precinct;
- In view of the Russian tradition to use administrative pressure and control, evidenced in the management of state-owned and large enterprises, Internet voting which lasts over many days may cause amplification of such pressure. A return to one-day voting on a weekend would alleviate the problem;
- The problem of administrative control of Internet voting can be effectively eliminated by the introduction of re-voting. A voter must be able to vote with the help of supplementary ballots before the end of voting. Only their last vote must be taken into the final count;
- Re-voting is also necessary to check the correctness of the registration of one's vote. This would allow for an external partial check of the integrity of the voting system and eliminate the temptation to substitute votes during their receipt and registration in the blockchain.
Such measures can be implemented within the framework of the existing remote electronic voting. However, they run up against the lack of political will and are constrained by irrelevant regulatory limitations of the REV.
1 The official name of the procedure is the "Electronic preliminary voting on candidates for subsequent nomination from the "United Russia'' party as candidates for deputies of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the VIII convocation, as well as for deputies of legislative (representative) government bodies of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation within the framework of the Single Voting Day in 2021". Official website - https://pg.er.ru/
3 According to the estimates of the electoral statistician Sergei Shpil'kin
4 A major city in the illegally annexed Crimea - REM
6 Russia's leading long-distance telephony provider - REM
7 Independent observers had not been able to confirm that the system is using blockchain technology - REM
10 Calculations are performed based on official voting results downloaded by Sergey Shpil'kin and available via https://t.me/RUElectionData/1700
12 Although the estimates of the percentage of drawn votes for the winning candidates could be clarified, since in some constituencies the estimate may vary depending on the assignment of several bordering stations in the number of votes from 30 to 80, in which the first signs of stuffing appear, to one or the other group. But since the overwhelming number of precincts contain a clearly pronounced series of similarly large "ballot stuffing", it can be argued with confidence that the percentage of drawn votes for winning candidates on the ballots in single-mandate constituencies falls within the range of 80-95% of the votes.
13 This is because, due to a large number of long series of "ballot stuffing" in favor of candidates on the list, the contribution of live votes is, on average, several times less than that for single-mandate candidates - see https://novayagazeta.ru/
14 Qualitatively, we can say that in many of those precincts where the artificial drawing up of numbers is not obvious, there were on average no more than one and a half times more real voters than the winning candidates received. At the same time, there is a small percentage of polling stations where the artificially added votes were not attributed to the winning candidates but were "thrown in" for the candidates who eventually took the sub-leading places. Most likely, the percentage of "stuffed ballots" is higher than the percentage of those artificially added for the winning candidates on single-mandate constituencies, and amounts to at least 90%.
15 See user's Facebook post
18 See Sergey Shpil'kin's graphs for one of the parameters of the results of candidates on the lists. Not in all regions the result looks natural or can be explained by administrative pressure. However, based on the totality of features, a region similar to Moscow cannot be found.