The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Russian voting moves online, Putin’s foes say another path to curb Kremlin is lost

A man holds a poster with the message “Freedom Alexei Navalny!” during a protest in Moscow on Sept. 25 over parliamentary election results. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

MOSCOW — Critics call Russia's online voting system a "black box" and an "absolute evil." President Vladimir Putin says it's the way of the future and, like progress, "cannot be stopped."

The only criticisms of it in last month's parliamentary elections, he says, were "because someone did not like the result" — in which Putin's party retained control of parliament.

But Russia's experiment in online voting (only Estonia has it on a large scale) is a new point of friction between the Kremlin and pro-democracy advocates, who say Putin is leading the nation down a more authoritarian path.

After the Sept. 17-19 parliamentary elections — in which Putin’s United Russia party kept its supermajority of seats — an informal network of independent IT analysts, opposition observers and statisticians red-flagged multiple doubts about the system. The questions include what caused unusual peaks in voting and why online results were so different from paper balloting.

They shared their conclusions online and in interviews with independent Russian media.

But Putin said on Sept. 25 that online voting “is convenient for people, and everything will be done for this to be maximally transparent and maximally fair.”

Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission, threatened legal action against critics of the system for spreading “disinformation.”

The move to online voting, analysts say, shifts even more clout to the Kremlin, with no real options for oversight.

Online voting was used, along with paper ballots, last month in Moscow and six other regions and looks set to be extended in time for 2024 elections, when Putin is expected to seek reelection. If he chooses, he could stay in power until 2036 under a revised constitution.

Cole J. Harvey of Oklahoma State University, an expert in authoritarian states’ electoral manipulation, said online voting was “a game changer” for Putin’s regime.

“When e-voting expands nationwide, the regime will be able to shift away from costly, uncertain vote-buying and voter pressure, to cheap, efficient falsification,” Harvey said.

Even the veneer of electoral legitimacy now takes a back seat to full political control, according to Tatiana Stanovaya of the political consultancy R. Politik, who added that the Kremlin had taken a “strategic decision” to press ahead with online voting.

“The legitimacy of elections and this regime is not a problem any longer for this regime,” she said. “For Putin, his legitimacy comes from his achievements. For him, people must thank him by voting for him.”

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One reason for the Kremlin’s more authoritarian shift is concern over jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. His Smart Voting system, corruption exposés and street protests shook Putin’s system, making it increasingly difficult to manage election results. (Smart Voting pools anti-Kremlin votes by directing voters to the opposition candidate most likely to defeat the Kremlin candidate in any seat.)

In Moscow, online voting flipped the commanding electoral leads laid down by opposition figures in paper balloting, sparking a political uproar. Opposition parties rejected the results.

The editor in chief of Echo of Moscow radio, Alexei Venediktov, who was deputy chairman of a public monitoring committee on Moscow’s online voting, argued that this was because pro-government voters used the online system while opposition voters did not.

But analysts pointed to red flags. Among them: the extremely high online turnout that voted overwhelmingly for Putin’s United Russia, in Russia’s most opposition-minded city.

Then there were two voting peaks on Friday morning and Sunday morning during the multiday voting, with a similar hard-to-explain pattern in every Moscow seat. After voting, it was not possible to verify counting and whether votes were genuine, opposition observers said.

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“The case of online voting in Moscow that flipped the results completely could not fool anyone who was paying attention,” said Tatiana Mikhailova, an economic historian and data specialist formerly of the prestigious Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.

She is one of many prominent independent analysts, statisticians and experts who examined what online voting data was available and compared notes on social media.

She said there were “anomalies” not seen in normal voting patterns, but authorities blocked access to data that would enable observers to check what happened.

The Moscow official in charge of the system, Artem Kostyrko, speaking on Echo of Moscow, said information on how an online vote was cast “at some point is not even traceable.” A person’s encrypted ballot “doesn’t exist anywhere.”

“That means that nobody can check whether the voting was manipulated and definitely prove it, because the proof was destroyed,” said Mikhailova.

The system also allowed people to change their votes — a feature that experts fear could be open to abuse, according to Mikhailova. Of 1.9 million online voters in Moscow, nearly 300,000 changed their votes — about 15 percent, much higher than system developers expected. But observers were not given access to data on how people re-voted.

“It also creates this whole additional level of flexibility for the ruling party to manufacture results that they want to see,” said Harvey. “We don’t really get to see as observers what’s going on under the hood. We just know that some votes were changed.”

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Prominent independent electoral analyst Sergei Shpilkin, who has been analyzing suspected Russian election manipulation for years, called online voting a “black box” and an “absolute evil.”

Instead of giving a results breakdown by polling station, it only gives the total results for each seat and turnout.

“It is impossible to investigate a million votes piled in one heap,” he told the independent media outlet Meduza. “There are simply not enough details for analysis.”

For the past two years, IT experts and election observers attended first weekly and then monthly meetings of a technical working group with Moscow government online-voting system developers.

Alexander Isavnin of the Internet Protection Society said observers at the meetings never got the technical documents explaining the system. Transactions in the system’s blockchain were closed to external observers, making it impossible to verify votes, he said.

“The idea of this process was to imitate the transparency of development, because our questions were not answered and documents were incomplete.”

Moscow technical working group participant Victor Tolstoguzov — a software engineer from Bauman Moscow State Technical University, where he develops electronic voting systems — said the system stripped voters, observers, candidates and election commission members of their right to verify the counting of votes and undermined confidence in elections. They had to accept the system on trust, he said.

“A voter can’t see if their vote was sent properly,” he said.

The only country in the world that uses national online voting is Estonia. In 2019 elections, nearly 43 percent voted online, according to Estonia’s Election Committee. After criticisms about its security and vulnerability to foreign interference, a task force recommended 25 measures to improve Estonia’s voting security in 2019.

Harvey said Russian authorities felt threatened by Navalny’s Smart Voting system because it started to build an opposition base in city and regional parliaments that could grow over time.

“I think the ruling party is concerned about that. They’re concerned about Navalny’s profile and his targeting corruption, which I think is a genuine weak point for the ruling party.”

Navalny, who could mobilize support and protests, was nearly assassinated by poisoning in August 2020 — by state agents, according to U.S. officials. He was jailed in February, and now faces new extremism charges carrying a 10-year jail term.

“This tool of electronic voting gives them a way to tamp down the risk of Smart Voting,” Harvey said. “We saw that in Moscow. . . . It just shows that you can make numbers appear in a database.”

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