#Analysis
Kaluga. A Holiday. Image - flickr

Lessons From Online Voting During the United Russia Primaries

Author: Dmitry Nesterov

Summary

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.

Introduction

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.

References:

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/

2 https://tass.ru/

3 According to the estimates of the electoral statistician Sergei Shpil'kin

4 A major city in the illegally annexed Crimea - REM

5 https://www.m24.ru/

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

8 https://rg.ru/

9 https://pg.er.ru/memo

10 Calculations are performed based on official voting results downloaded by Sergey Shpil'kin and available via https://t.me/RUElectionData/1700

11 https://novayagazeta.ru/

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

4 https://www.kommersant.ru/

5 https://www.vedomosti.ru/

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.

7 https://tjournal.ru/

20 https://meduza.io/

Voting. By Photobank Moscow-Live
#Report

This is a preliminary statement on findings of observation on the main voting day, September 19, 2021, by the 'Movement in Defense of Voters' Rights "Golos".' Golos ran long-term and short-term observation of all stages of the campaign. In the course of the elections, the united call center's hotline received 5,943 calls. The 'Map of Violations' received 4,973 reports of alleged violations by noon 20 September, Moscow time, including 3,787 on the voting days.

Voting. Image by Photobank Moscow-Live. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Voting. Image by Photobank Moscow-Live
#Report

This is a brief overview of election monitoring findings on the Second Voting Day, September 18, 2021 by citizen observers of the 'Movement in Defense of Voters' Rights "Golos"'.

Duma elections. by George Shuklin, CC BY-SA 2.5
#Report

This is a brief overview of election monitoring findings on the First Voting Day by citizen observers of the 'Movement in Defense of Voters' Rights "Golos"'.

Campaigning in Samara. 2011 elections. Image by Golos
#Report

The September 19, 2021 elections are marked by growing pressure on media and individual journalists, attempts at blocking information about "Smart Voting", and massive coercion of voters to vote and register for e-voting and mobile voting. In parallel, social media has been growing in importance for years as a space of more freedom and an alternative information channel. Here are the main findings of the report that focuses on the impact of these two antipodal trends.

Victor Vasnetsov. Three bogatyrs (Medieval Russian Heroes). Photo by flickr user paukrus
#Report

This report covers the monitoring of social networks from the 10th to the 11th week of the election campaign (August 23 to September 5) to the Russian State Duma, scheduled for September 19, 2021.

Russian passports. Image by MediaPhoto.Org, CC-BY-3.0
#Analysis

One aspect of the 2021 Russian parliamentary elections that differentiates them from previous federal elections is the potential participation in the voting process of dozens of thousands of people located on the Ukrainian territories outside of control of the Ukrainian authorities and not recognized as part of Russia by the Russian Federation itself.

Map of Violations Update Sept 6-12. Image by REM
#Report

This is the seventh overview of reports of possible violations of electoral legislation gathered via the 'Map of Violations' by the 'Movement in Defense of Voters' Rights "Golos"' between September 6 and September 12. Since the beginning of the election campaign, 945 messages from 72 regions have been published on the Map.

Poll worker displaying an empty ballot box before the opening of a polling station in Moscow, 18.03.2018. Photo OSCA PA, CC BY-SA 2.0
#Analysis

The de facto impossibility to participate in elections for parties that must register candidates via signature collection turns their existence into a mere formality. This creates a vicious circle in which the system reproduces itself by welcoming only actors that are already 'in' and effectively barring new political players from elections.

Map of Violations Update - Aug 30-Sept 1
#Report

This is the sixth overview of reports of possible violations of electoral legislation gathered via the 'Map of Violations' by the Movement in Defense of Voters' Rights 'Golos' between August 30 and September 5. In total, from August 30 to September 1, 125 messages have been received by the Map.

Social media. Image by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay
#Report

This report covers the monitoring of social networks from the 5th to the 9th week (July 20 - August 22) of the election campaign to the Russian State Duma, scheduled for September 19, 2021.

Vladimir Putin on XVII congress of United Russia in 2017. Image by Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

Despite its dismal approval rating, Russian President Vladimir Putin's ruling political party can – and likely will – win a constitutional majority in September's legislative elections.

Map of Violations, Golos website. Screenshot - Sept. 1, 2021
#Report

This is the fifth overview of reports of possible violations of electoral legislation gathered via the 'Map of Violations' by the Movement in Defense of Voters' Rights 'Golos' between August 23 and August 29. In total, 100 messages have been received by the Map during this period.

2019 Rally for right to vote in Moscow. Image by Wikimedia Commons

The Moscow City Court has designated the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Alexey Navalny's Headquarters and the Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation as 'extremist' organizations. Inter alia, it implies the prohibition to participate in elections.

The authorities have proceeded to banning pro-opposition candidates from running to the State Duma and other legislative bodies on a pretext of involvement in Navalny's projects.

State Duma elections in Sochi, Dec 4. 2011. Image by flickr/Andrew Amerikov
#Report

The elections of the State Duma of Russia of the eighth convocation are marked by considerable tightening of rules for candidate nomination and registration. In fact, the rules are much worse than in 2016, when the current membership of the parliament was elected. Run on the background of harsh restrictions on freedom of expression and information and freedom of assembly and association, the elections are accompanied by a political crackdown against the most active pro-opposition citizens.

Map of Violations, Golos website. Screenshot - Aug. 20, 2021
#Report

This is the fourth overview of reports of possible violations of electoral legislation gathered via the 'Map of Violations' by the Movement for the Defense of Voters' Rights 'Golos' between August 16 and August 22. In total, 98 messages have been received by the Map in that period.

Behind a camera. Photo by Bicanski on Pixnio
#Report

Equality of rights of candidates in media coverage of their election campaign is one of the most important conditions for holding free and democratic elections. For a significant part of Russians, television remains to be one of the main sources of information. During the election campaign, the influence of television in shaping the attitude of the majority of voters towards elections and candidates is often decisive. Here is a summary of monitoring findings for the five main federal television channels during the first eight weeks of the campaign.

Map of Violations, Golos website. Screenshot - Aug. 20, 2021
#Report

This is the third overview of reports of possible violations of electoral legislation gathered via the 'Map of Violations' by the Movement for the Defense of Voters' Rights 'Golos' between August 9 and August 15. Since the beginning of the election campaign, 452 messages from 62 regions have been published on the Map.

 

Screenshot of Golos' statement cover image

On August 18, the Ministry of Justice of Russia included the Movement 'Golos' as the first unregistered organisation into the registry of unregistered public associations performing the functions of a foreign agent. Here is the translation of their statement.

Russian regional elections in 2018. Image by Wikimedia Commons
#Report

According to the CEC data as of 9 July 2021, 4,370 elections and referenda are scheduled for 19 September 2021, including elections to the State Duma, nine gubernatorial elections (new heads will be elected in three more regions), 39 elections to regional parliaments, and 11 elections of representative bodies of regional centres. Here's an overview of legal regulations and peculiarities of these races.

Participants of Just Russia rally take off their uniforms 5 minutes after the start of the Yekaterinburg rally on May 1, 2019. Image by Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

PART 4: JUST RUSSIA-PATRIOTS-FOR TRUTH

According to sociologists, the same four parties represented in the parliament now: United Russia, the Communist Party of Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Just Russia will probably be elected again in 2021. How are these four parties organized? What is their support base in regions?

A screenshot of a live broadcast of the voting process. Image by 'Golos' Movement.

In 2021, the Russian Central Election Commission decided to scrap open video broadcasts from the polling stations – a feature of Russian elections since 2012. The Movement in Defense of Voters' Rights 'Golos' has appealed to the President to help overturn this decision.

Map of Violations, Golos website. Screenshot - Aug. 12, 2021
#Report

This is the second overview of reports of possible violations of electoral legislation gathered via the 'Map of Violations' by the Movement for the Defense of Voters' Rights 'Golos' between August 2 and August 8.

May 1st, 2009. LDPR Rally. Photo by Photobank Moscow-Live / flickr
#Analysis

PART 3: LDPR

According to sociologists, the same four parties represented in the parliament now: United Russia, the Communist Party of Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Just Russia will probably be elected again in 2021. How are these four parties organized? What is their support base in regions?

The Rt. Hon. Sir Alan Duncan represented the UK at the 23rd OSCE Ministerial Council in Hamburg, Germany, 8-9 December 2016.
OSCE Flags. Photo by Alex Hammond / FCO. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
#Commentary

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Parliamentary Assembly will not deploy international election observation missions to the 2021 State Duma elections due to major limitations imposed on the institutions. Announcing the decision, ODIHR Director noted that the ability "to independently determine the number of observers necessary for us to observe effectively and credibly is essential to all international observation."

Reporter's notebook. Photo by 2008 Roger H. Goun. CC BY 3.0
#Commentary

On 28 July 2021, the Central Election Commission adopted a new media accreditation procedure that restricts media access to observe and report on the electoral process. The new rules violate the freedom of media editorial policy and may significantly reduce the transparency of the election process.

Map of Violations, Golos website. Screenshot - Aug. 5, 2021
#Report

This is the first overview of reports of possible violations of electoral legislation gathered via the 'Map of Violations' by the Movement for the Defense of Voters' Rights 'Golos' between June 22 and August 1.

May 1st Demonstration of the Communist Party, 2012. Photo by Photobank Moscow-Live / flickr
#Analysis

PART 2: CPRF

According to sociologists, the same four parties represented in the parliament now: United Russia, the Communist Party of Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Just Russia will probably be elected again in 2021. How are these four parties organized? What is their support base in regions?

Ballot stuffing, elections March 18, 2018, Lyubertsy. Image - Golos
#Commentary

Less than two months before the elections, the Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) decided to scrap open video broadcasts from the polling stations, which have been the feature of Russian elections since 2012.

1st of May Demonstration in Moscow. 2010. Image - Photobank Moscow-Live / flickr
#Analysis

PART 1: United Russia

According to sociologists, the same four parties represented in the parliament now: United Russia, the Communist Party of Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Just Russia will probably be elected again in 2021. How are these four parties organized? What is their support base in regions?

Ballot box for voting on Constitutional Amendments 2020. Photo - Wikimedia Commons
#Report

Since the last State Duma elections in 2016, lawmakers have introduced 19 amendments to the election law. In the year leading up to the State Duma elections in September 2021 alone, seven significant legislative amendments have been introduced, six of them in less than four months before the start of the campaign.

TV reporter, Bryansk. Photo - pxfuel
#Analysis

After almost a decade of crackdowns on big players, the landscape of critical journalism in Russia is dominated by local or smaller niche projects. But if the 2020-2021 trend of relentless attacks on media, journalists, and bloggers continues, many of these small projects are not likely to survive into the autumn. The regime makes it pretty clear that it no longer intends to tolerate any dissent.

"1941- ssshhh!" - Image by James Vaughan / flickr

The laws on "foreign agent" and "undesirable organizations" continue to hamper the work of affected organizations, stigmatize and damage their reputation, and isolate the civil society from international cooperation and support. What are these provisions and how are they being applied?

Vladimir Putin Speech at State Duma plenary session 2020-03-10. Image - Wikimedia Commons

The Russian State Duma's seventh convocation is coming to the end of its five-year term. And according to a new report from iStories and Znak.com, dozens of its deputies haven't said a word in a parliamentary session since they were elected in 2016. Others haven't put forward a single bill. Be that as it may, this hasn't stopped these lawmakers from collecting high salaries and planning to put their names on the ballot for the State Duma election coming up in September.

Kaluga. A Holiday. Image - flickr
#Analysis

During the United Russia primaries, experts detected possible falsification of the results and instances of interference in the electronic voting process. According to some analyses, 99% of votes for the first 22 candidates on the United Russia party list were falsified while the amount of falsified votes for candidates in single-mandate constituencies reached 80-95% of the votes cast.

Arrest by the police. Image - Wikimedia Commons
#Report

According to election observers, recent amendments further limiting citizens' passive suffrage constitute a "fifth wave" of depriving Russians of their right to stand for election since the collapse of the USSR. New restrictions have a particular impact on politically active citizens.

Programming, computing and information concept. Image - Peshkova, Getty Images Pro
#Report

In May, the Russian Federation has tested a new system of remote electronic voting. The Movement in Defense of Voters' Rights "Golos" observed the testing phase, took part in the voting, and shared their conclusions and recommendations in a respective report.

"I have the right to choose!" Photo - EPDE.
#Analysis

Opportunities for independent citizen election observation and civil society space in general have been shrinking steadily in Russia over the past decade. Recently, further restrictions have been adopted that limit the ability of citizens to independently monitor electoral processes.

May 1st Demonstration of the Communist Party, 2012. Image by _TMY2892/flickr
#Analysis

Over the past 14 years, the authorities have blocked 120,000 candidates from participating in elections of various levels, depriving millions of Russian citizens of the right to choose their representatives.

A demonstration in Moscow. Image - by Andrey, Pxhere.

Russia has finally outlawed Alexey Navalny's political and anti-corruption movement. Here's how the crackdown affects activists, journalists, and ordinary supporters.

Plenary meeting of the State Duma. Image - Wikimedia Commons
#Commentary

The President of Russia approved the law prohibiting those who are "involved" in the activities of an extremist organization from running in elections.

Electoral headquarters of Alexey Navalny. Photo - Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

On June 9, the Moscow City Court, based on the charges by the Moscow Prosecutor's Office, recognized the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the Foundation for the Protection of Citizens' Rights, and the headquarters of Alexei Navalny as extremist organizations. Now, many citizens are under a threat of pressure and persecution.

Vladimir Putin at the United Russia Congress (2011-11-27). Image - Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

Between May 24 and 30, United Russia held its preliminary selection of candidates for 2021 State Duma elections. Nearly 12 million citizens participated in the party's primaries. Yet, a more careful examination shows an increasingly controlled and non-transparent process, aimed at having the public formally 'endorse' a carefully vetted list of pre-selected candidates.

Meeting of Central Election Commission Chair Ella Pamfilova with OSCE / ODIHR Director Matteo Mecacci. Photo - CEC
#Report

Between 2003 and 2018, OSCE/ODIHR published 139 recommendations on how to improve the conduct of elections in Russia. In the run-up to the State Duma elections in 2021, Russia has fully implemented just over 10% of them. Some have been tackled more promptly than others.

Man using computers. Photo by: Lisa Fotios from Pexels
#Analysis

Ahead of the State Duma election on September 19, 2021, Russia just tested its remote electronic voting system. While the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation (CEC) is preparing the report about the results of the test, election monitors say Russia's electronic voting system is a black box.

Alexei Navalny. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

The Russian authorities are expected to orchestrate a result in the upcoming State Duma elections that will give United Russia a clear majority of seats. This does not mean, however, that the manipulation of the electoral process by the authorities is complete. In a limited number of competitive districts, true opposition candidates including candidates who are associated with Aleksei Navalny have a real chance of winning if they are allowed to run. In recent weeks, steps have been taken to block these 'undesirable' candidates from participating.

Central Election Commission (CEC) of Russian Federation during April 21, 2021, meeting. Photo by: CEC.
#Commentary

On March 19, 2021, the new composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC) of the Russian Federation was revealed. Out of 15 members, eight new people joined the CEC. In particular, the new Commission has been 'reinforced' by bureaucrats from the Presidential Administration, the State Duma, and the Civic Chamber (a consultative civil society institution closely linked to the government).