September 2021, Russia will hold its first Member of Parliament Election by remote election voting in six regions. Remote election voting, according to the definition of Federal Law (UU) No. 154 is voting without using paper, but special software. In terms of the terminology and types of international polling technology, remote election voting used in Russia is internet voting or i-voting. As with i-voting in general, through remote election voting, voters can vote from wherever they are by using a personal smartphone, laptop or tablet.
Remote election voting the type of i-voting technology (and will be written with i-voting in the following sentences) in Russia is one of the four available methods. Three other methods are available, namely voting at the polling station by ballot, voting by post, and home voting where the polling officer will go to the voter’s house and give the ballots.
I-voting is part of an effort to digitize elections that began in 2018 and began to be implemented in Russia after the amendment of the constitution and the ratification of Federal Law No. 154 on 23 May 2020. This law introduces the option of voting by post, electronic distance voting at all levels of the election, as well as voting outside the polling station (TPS), namely in open public spaces such as playgrounds and car parks. This law also regulates the collection of electronic signatures for the nomination of regional head election candidates, in connection with the pandemic situation.
I-voting in 2020 All-Russia Vote
From Iuliia Krivonosova’s report published by International IDEA (2020), i-voting was first tested in Russia in the 2019 Duma Deputy Election or Moscow city parliamentary elections. Then it was officially implemented in the 2020 All-Russia Vote elections during the pandemic for Moscow City and Nizhny Novgorod City with more than 10 million voters. All-Russia Vote is a term for voting activities that aim to get an overview of public opinion regarding constitutional changes (not determining whether changes to the constitution are made or not, but only to show the legitimacy of a constitutional change).
In All-Russia Vote 2020, i-voting service is provided during the advance or early voting period from 25 to 30 June. For Moscow, the i-voting service is open from 10 am, while in Nizhny Novgorod City, it is open from 2 pm. There are 1,051,155 voters who are allowed to vote via i-voting. 93 percent use electronic ballots or e-ballot. I-voting in both cities closes on June 30 at 8 p.m.
To be able to vote via i-voting, voters must identify themselves in two steps. First, authentication on the 2020og.ru web portal. Second, confirm identity via SMS verification. The built i-voting system does not provide an option for re-voting and there is no feature that allows voters to verify the votes cast.
“Voters can vote from anywhere. They usually use mobile phones. Just register, receive a registration confirmation email, click the link, vote, then send your vote. It’s easy,” said Russian CEC member Pavel Andreev at the “Roundtable on Elections and Technology” event on June 20, 2021.
I-voting in Russia was developed by the Moscow Department of Information Technology with the help of Kaspersky Lab (Evgeny Barkof’s presentation on the activities “Roundtable on Elections and Technology”) and Waves Enterprise. Kaspersky Lab itself is an international cyber security pioneer company from Russia. While Waves Enterprise is a blockchain platform developer in Russia for corporate and government use. I-voting is built on a private blockchain platform, Exonum, which is claimed to be very secure and able to maintain the anonymity of voter choices.
“We use blockchain technology so we can be sure it is one hundred percent secure and the system cannot be hacked. The anonymity of voters’ choices is also guaranteed through a crypto algorithm transparency system,” said Barkof.
Previously, in 2019, i-voting was held within the e-government portal, but in 2020, i-voting is accessed through a specially created web portal, namely 2020og.ru. I-voting was also applied to the National Parliamentary Election primaries for the Kursk and Yaroslavl regions in September 2020.
I-voting in 6 regions of Russia for the 2021 Parliamentary Elections
Whereas in the All-Russian Vote activity i-voting is only provided for voters in two cities, in the Parliamentary Elections 19 September 2021, the Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) prepared to make i-voting services available to voters in six Russian regions. There are a total of 84 regions throughout the Russian Federation and trials have been carried out in all these regions from 12 to 14 May 2021. The 2021 Parliamentary Elections will be held for three days.
“A month ago, we carried out trials throughout Russia. From local to national also carried out. The interest of voters to try i-voting is quite significant. There were hundreds of thousands of people up to 1 million who participated in the trial. This number even exceeds our expectations,” explained Pavel.
To take part in the i-voting trial which will be applied to the Parliamentary Elections 19 September 2021, citizens must submit a registration application on the Gosuslugi.ru portal. This portal is the official portal of the Russian Government’s public services.
Different from i-voting 2020, i-voting which will be used in 2021 has allowed voters to vote via i-voting all day before voting closes and change the vote. So, the i-voting service will be open starting at 8 a.m. on 17 September and closing at 8 p.m. on 19 September. Voters can vote on the web mos.ru and change their vote at that time. The note is that electronic ballots can only be given back three hours after voters cast their ballots.
Also different from 2020, voters who have registered to vote online from August 2 to September 13 cannot switch to the direct voting method at polling stations. However, voters can go to the polling station to vote through the computer provided at the polling station.
Public trust in i-voting
Alena Epifanova, Research Fellow at International Order and Democracy writes at dgap.org about the concerns of many people in Russia over the implementation of i-voting in six regions in the 2021 Parliamentary Elections. First, the i-voting system has not one hundred percent perfect four months before voting. In fact, in May, the trial for i-voting was still being carried out, and there were still problems with the system. There are cases where the voter registration application was rejected by the system because the system was unable to verify the voter’s personal data. The CEC has also not created a system that prevents voters from voting twice, namely at polling stations and through i-voting.
Second, i-voting developers are state institutions and companies supported by the state. The server for i-voting data also uses the state’s server. This raises public suspicion of vote manipulation by the state. Moreover, with the concentration of all voting and vote counting processes digitally, independent election monitoring will be more difficult to do.
Third, the lack of space for public participation and election monitoring on the i-voting system. The Russian election monitoring association Golos said that technology monitors and observers were not allowed to download blockchain transactions from the i-voting website and therefore could not evaluate the integrity of the election.
Andreev Pavel, a member of the Russian CEC admits that the adoption of a new counting technology is not easy. Technology must ensure its accuracy and security, as well as protect the confidentiality of voters’ votes. Technology adoption also takes a long time, both to prepare the technology and to familiarize election organizers and voters to use the technology. In Russia, electoral technology is an issue that is highlighted by the public along with the increasing awareness of free and fair elections.
“Of course this is not an easy challenge. Technology must be reliable, accurate. There is a growing awareness about trustworthy technology,” concluded Pavel in the “Roundtable on Elections and Technology” discussion.