In an already controlled environment, the latest moves to change electoral systems in Russia have the potential to further tighten the grip of the Kremlin. A Bill to enable candidate registration signatures to be collected via the state services app has been amended at the last minute to allow remote voting via a number of means. It passed the Duma (the lower house of parliament) after lawmakers were given just 36 minutes to see the proposed amendments. Covid-19 restrictions limited the amount of media and public scrutiny that was possible of the procedings.
What appears to have emerged from the process is a Bill that will allow for the development of internet voting, for postal voting and to expand the range of people who are qualified to vote at home on election day. In addition, for health reasons, voting will now be allowed in the precincts of the polling station as well as the voting room itself.
There is an axiom that any time you take the ballot paper out of the control of election officials, that vote becomes less secure and more susceptible to fraud. These new measures all remove the oversight that election administrators – and observers – will have over the process. It is perhaps no wonder that Russia’s leading independent election observation group – Golos – have said of the changes:
“Their implementation without simultaneously ensuring guarantees of effective control will increase the level of distrust of citizens in elections.”
To take the changes one by one:
Internet voting is often seen as the solution to many election problems. In the UK it was trialed as a response to declining turnout in the early 2000s. But just because someone tells a pollster that they are more likely to vote if they can do so from home via the internet, doesn’t mean they will actually do so. TV programmes which use internet voting have many hours of positive broadcast coverage and still only get a small proportion of their audience to vote.
As I have written before, internet voting is doubly problematic. First in that it takes the vote out of the polling station. Second, that it is reliant on ‘black box technology’ so the voter cannot see directly how their vote contributes to the result and there is no paper trail. If some malign actor, either within the election commission or hacking in from outside, wanted to fix the result then it is far more possible with internet voting and almost impossible to prove.
The only country which successfully uses internet voting for national elections is Estonia which has spent many millions (in a very small country) on security. This includes a reader for every household so that voters can insert their national identity card to be validated. Even then, I would argue, it is not completely secure as other members of the household could vote using a person’s card – particularly if they are vulnerable or disinclined to vote. And the chances of pressurized voting are obvious.
Postal votes have been the subject of many election fraud cases around the world. It is not quite true to assert, as President Trump does, that all postal voting is riddled with fraud. But postal votes are subject to many of the risks of other forms of remote voting.
Where a person cannot make it to vote on election day, postal votes can be a good thing. In the UK we used to have a ‘for cause’ system which meant you needed a valid reason for asking for one. Now we operate an ‘on demand’ system. This avoids the need to tie up doctors and employers and for election administrators to deal with lots of paperwork.
Where the UK – and others – have largely failed is when they seek to adopt universal postal voting – ie every voter is sent a postal vote to their registered address. I have dealt with such issues here. In short, if a person is not aware that their vote is being sent by post then it is easy to abstract and cast illegally. Switzerland is a country where all-postal ballots do work well, but is a very different electoral culture.
In order to have an effective postal vote system, a country needs to have a means of verifying that the application and the resultant vote come from the registered voter. You don’t want to allow others to apply and then vote on your behalf. This means having lots of staff, lots of time and specialist signature matching software. My experience of the Russian system is that the elections staff are generally pretty well trained and motivated, but they are short staffed and would need a significant increase in their budgets and allocation of high quality hardware from local administrations which are often reluctant to let them have anything other than the oldest computers.
Traditionally, Russia has sought to address the problem of people being away from home on election day by allowing ‘place of stay’ voting. This system, managed by the state services app, allows a voter to move their polling station up to a couple of days before the election. If you are away from home on business or an economic migrant, you can simply change where you vote to a local station. And there are special polling stations created in hospitals and railway stations, and even on ice-breakers and at the Antarctic Research Station. So with all these options, are postal votes really needed?
Early voting has been used for some time in a number of countries. It is not the most susceptible to fraud as it still requires the voter to attend a polling station (their own or a central hub) where they are dealt with by election administrators in the same manner as on election day. However, it can stretch the resources of party and other observers who are there to ensure that nothing untoward happens. And it can make it easier for the same voter to cast multiple ballots by going from polling station to polling station.
Home voting has been the traditional means by which Russia allows those who cannot come to a polling station on election day to vote. It has always been restricted to the old and people with disabilities and requires an application by the elector which is then adjudicated by the polling station committee. If approved, then on election day a subset of the committee, plus observers, takes a small version of the ballot box to the home of the voter. Although in most cases this is a workable solution, it requires the intrusion into the voter’s home of up to eight people and it is often difficult to ensure the secrecy of the vote.
The proposal now is to allow carers as well as those being cared for to vote in this way. That may seem a logical step, but simply extends the problem, I would suggest.
The proposal is to allow voters to cast their ballots not just in the confines of the polling booths, but also within designated areas within the precincts of the polling station building – in courtyards, for example. This is being done, it is claimed, for health reasons.
Fairly obviously, loss of secrecy is a big problem with this proposal. If people are wandering around with their ballot then it can be seen by others. In my experience in Russia at least one third of voters do not bother to fold their ballot after completion.
I don’t know whether there will be polling booths set up in the courtyards where voting will be allowed, but the chances are that these will be as unpopular as those in the officisl voting room if there is a fear of Covid-19.
Perhaps the other major problem is that election officials and observers will find it difficult to track what is happening. This makes frauds such as carousel voting, illicit pressure, family voting and proxy voting all more easy to achieve.
On the other hand…
I certainly would not suggest that the Russian voting system is in the dark ages. The place of stay voting system is very good indeed and deserves to be studied by many supposedly advanced democracies. And the state services portal makes it possible to accomplish a lot of tasks related to the elections process in a simple and speedy manner. That’s a boon to voters as well as to the state. If there were to be a form of internet voting then this might well be the basis for such a system.
That said, however, it is clear that the changes being developed as a result of this Bill are not going to make the Russian system more secure and will actually do only a little to enhance access to voting. Fundamentally, they open the way for those who wish to rig the vote to do so. Citizen confidence in elections stems from knowing that votes are cast freely and that the result is an accurate counting of only legitimate votes. Sadly I think that this Bill takes Russia away from those principles.