Russia’s remote voting proposals will lessen transparency and trust

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

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 Voting

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

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

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.

Precinct Voting

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.

Reading List – 15th May 2020

Apologies for not having done one of these for a while…

 

Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie’s Moscow Center argues that Russia could be squeezed out of a new bipolar world where everything comes down to the USA and China. And while this may be a relief to some in sanctions-affected Russia, he argues that the risk is that Russia loses relevance.

 

In Time Magazine, David Miller argues that just because Netanyahu can annex parts of the West Bank doesn’t mean he will.

 

Nana Kalandadze of International IDEA looks at the aborted attempt to hold an all-postal ballot in Poland last weekend.

 

Russia proposes postal and internet voting for ‘national vote’

(UPDATE: See additional notes below)

Russia is proposing to allow voting by mail or online in the ballot due to take place to approve the changes to the constitution proposed by Vladimir Putin back in January. The vote was due to take place in April but was postponed by the Covid-19 pandemic. No new date has yet been set.

President Putin is widely felt to want the vote to take place sooner rather than later but there is understandable concern that voters may not want to go to the polls if it is held while people are still catching and dying from coronavirus. Hence the move to allow people to vote from home.

Russia has previously made big efforts to ensure everyone can vote in elections. During the 2018 Presidential elections I witnessed the promotion of the ‘place of stay’ voting system which enabled any registered voter to move their polling station, reflecting where they actually lived or would be on election day, rather than their official address. This could be done on paper, but most people did so using the “Unified Portal of State and Municipal Services” – an app which is genuinely easy to use and which covers most state and local services. Russia also created a range of special polling stations in hospitals, railway stations and even icebreakers to ensure that those who would be away from their registered address could still have their say.

The country also allows people to register to vote at home. This is used mainly by the very old and people with disabilities. It is a relatively common system in the former Soviet states, but it is cumbersome as it requires members of the polling station team – as well as observers – to enter the voter’s home on Election Day. Until now, Russia has not had a system of postal voting, nor, of course, of internet voting.

Setting up such systems is complex. There is no simple ‘off the shelf’ model. As we have seen in the USA and in Poland (although the latter election was abandoned with four days to do), you cannot simply state that everyone can vote by mail and expect it to happen without a flaw. The postal service needs to have the capacity and knowledge and there needs to be some sort of mechanism to make sure that the vote reaches and is completed by the right person. Having signatures or other personal identifiers on file – and a computer system able to accurately verify them – is needed. Plus, as soon as you take the ballot outside the polling station, the risks of coercion increase.

In the case of internet voting, the good news for Russia is the state services portal. This could provide a gateway for an online balloting procedure. But there is still a long way between having that portal and being able to use it for a ballot that voters can trust to remain secret and secure. The only country in the world that uses internet voting for national elections is Estonia, which has invested a very large amount in security hardware to make sure the right person is voting.

For all these reasons, ODIHR recommended in the case of Poland that significant changes should not take place less than 6 months before the election is due. That recommendation would surely apply for Russia as well.

To date all we have is a law passed by the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament. It must still go to the upper house, the Electoral Commission and the President, but it seems unlikely to change much. The details of how it might work are still to be made public and it might be that this remains an aspiration rather than a reality. But it will be a development that will be closely monitored by elections analysts both in Russia and elsewhere.

UPDATE: Kommersant reports that, contrary to what was initially reported, remote voting will not be allowed for the national vote on the constitutional changes. Given the conflicting reports, I am looking to get clarity. However, if Kommersant is right then there is still the likelihood that Russia is looking to move to online and postal voting for future elections – possibly as soon as this autumn’s regional or next year’s Duma polls. That still presents a big logistical challenge for the state.

Social Media platforms are moderating Covid-19 content and should learn lessons for elections

Social media platforms have been very quick to act to limit the spread of false information about Covid-19 on their platforms. And they have gone further by prioritising content provided by expert sources within their algorithm.

So if they can do it for Covid-19, why can’t they do it in other areas such as elections? Why do platforms such as Facebook still insist on ‘letting users judge truth for themselves’.

So when it comes to elections and political issues, Facebook hands over control to third-party fact-checking organisations. They have limited powers and even smaller budgets. They can’t for instance, get involved in the the statements made by elected leaders or candidates. So if President Trump were to say something false on the platform then it would have to stand with the public left to decide for themselves whether it is true or not. Facebook claims that political statements often cannot be judged to be 100% true or 100% false and so it would be wrong of them to try to adjudicate.

And yet when it comes to the virus, there are many supposed facts fighting for attention. Issues such as whether you can catch the disease more than once, how much good facemasks do and whether children can catch or spread the disease are key. And there have been scientists on either side of the debate on each of these, with opinion shifting over time. Yet the platforms are promoting one side of the argument over the other in each of these cases based on what officials such as the WHO and CDC are saying. It cannot only be me who sees a double standard when it comes to the way the virus is treated compared with climate change?

Robyn Caplan at the Brookings Institute makes the point that there is a difference between moderation and mediation. She suggests that it is not just a matter of taking down the fake news, but of trying to understand the truth in a complicated scientific world

Most of us would accept that, when it comes to Covid-19, there is a difference in the knowledge held by Chris Whitty on the one hand and Jo Bloggs down the street on the other, and so it is right that the platforms use their algorithms to make sure we are more likely to see the former than the latter. But with election related material they do not. Indeed, the algorithms go out of their way to reinforce prejudice by promoting content from people like us and people we agree with and reducing the likelihood of us seeing any fact check or an opposing point of view. There is little in the way of debate in your Facebook feed.

Just as with electoral manifestos, there are areas of genuine debate about the virus that social media platforms do not, and should not, get involved with. How lockdown should be implemented and then lifted is a political decision. We can debate it online as much as we do in real life. And even though the science is more determined, it is not exactly agreed with by 100% of the scientists. You only have to look at the outcomes from the government’s SAGE group and the unofficial alternative. But the platforms are prepared to wade into this debate because they know it is their public responsibility to do so.

The UK government has delayed its Online Harms Bill again and today the minister refused to deny that it could be 2023 before it is enacted. With that much time available, surely it is right that the government here at least looks at the opportunities to require the platforms to take the lessons they have learned from Covid-19 and apply them to areas such as elections too.

Facebook names their first board members – they have a lot to do

Facebook has picked the first members of its new oversight board which will guide company policy on issues to do with free speech. The line-up so far is impressive (but you would expect that from Facebook). The question is whether this group will be able to wield enough power to change company policy.

Among the four co-chairs of the group is Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former prime minister of Denmark. She is joined by two US law professors, Jamal Greene and Michael McConnell, and Catalina Botero Marino, a former special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Organization of American States. Nobel peace laureate Tawakkol Karman and Alan Rusbridger, the former Guardian editor-in-chief, are among the 16 ordinary board members so far selected and the total board will expand to 40 names over time.

“Our roster includes three former judges, six former or current journalists, and other leaders with backgrounds from civil society, academia and public service,” said Thomas Hughes, the director of the oversight board. “They represent a diverse collection of backgrounds and beliefs, but all have a deep commitment to advancing human rights and freedom of expression.”

So what is the board? Well its main aim is to set Facebook policy and act as the final arbiter in disputes about what should and should not be allowed on the platform. This has been an area which has been decidedly lacking until now but has become more and more important.

Take, for example, Facebook’s policy on political speech and adverts. I’ve written a lot about this in the past. I have criticised the company for failing to have a vision as to how it believes politicians (and issue campaigners) should be able to act, a rationale for why they should be treated differently from others and a robust fact-checking system which can guide users to understand why what they are being told might not be true. As a result, Facebook has become out of line with other platforms and often appears to be making up policy on the hoof.

Facebook currently operates a single world-wide policy on political speech. They allow politicians to say what they want. And they allow political adverts to pretty much do the same. In contrast, ordinary advertisers cannot say things that are untrue and even organic posts can be subject to fact-checking. Given the predominance that the platform holds in the marketplace in many countries, this can allow politicians free rein to lie to the electorate with little chance that alternative points of view – or the truth – will get an airing.

Facebook has also failed to take account of the different election laws that apply in countries around the world. Many of these are out-dated, but the platform hasn’t really grasped the chance to work with legislatures to update laws and make sure that Facebook policies in the territory are in compliance.

So will the new board deal with these issues? We will have to wait and see.

Facebook suggests that Iran targeted Scottish Independence referendum with fake online accounts

Facebook has suggested that Iran was engaged in attempted online election and political manipulation as far back as 2011 and tried to influence the result of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

A report by Graphika – which has been allowed access to Facbook’s data – says that there were thousands of accounts and these promoted Ron Paul’s presidential bid and the Occupy movement as well as a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum. The company suggests that such efforts may have been more designed to test the water than significant operations, but that fake accounts linked to Iran’s state broadcaster were promoting messages favourable to that state. Arabic language efforts aimed at Iran’s neighbours were much bigger operations.

Graphika makes clear that many of the posts were entreaties to follow Islamic teachings and amplify state messaging as well as attempts at audience building. It also suggests that for a period some of the fake accounts promoted the arabic language version of Russian broadcaster Sputnik. But there were activities related to elections:

“This activity focused briefly on three main topics: the Republican primaries of early 2012, the Occupy movement of the same period, and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. In each case, the network used a combination of fake accounts, pages, and groups to push its messaging, with the fake accounts sharing and promoting the pages and groups. Rather than the website-heavy content of later efforts, this was much more based on visuals, particularly cartoons. None of these posts yielded major viral impact, measured in likes or shares, and some of the pages were abandoned after only a few days… Nevertheless, Facebook’s revelation is of historical interest: it provides a confirmed data point on attempted foreign interference in Western democratic exercises as far back as 2012, a full electoral cycle before the Russian interference of 2016.”

Specifically talking about the Scottish Independence referendum, Graphika says:

“None of these posts achieved viral impact, measured in the number of likes, shares, or comments. Typical posts scored a few dozen reactions, sometimes a little over 100. This is not negligible, but it is a long way away from being an effort on the sort of scale that might have had an impact on the referendum. In March 2014, six months before the Scottish referendum, the cartoons page stopped posting, for unknown reasons.”

This report is interesting for two main reasons. First in that it shows that Iran was apparently active in this field before Russia’s Internet Research Agency started. Second, because it confirms the sorts of operations that could be undertaken, although it appears that Iran decided that attempts to use cartoons to influence western elections were not likely to be successful.

Poland’s Senate rejects postal vote plans

The upper chamber of the Polish parliament has rejected a plan for an all-postal ballot in Sunday’s Presidential election. There is now confusion as to whether the vote can go ahead. The proposal for an all-mail voting system was made by the government which wanted to see the May 10th election date kept despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

The measure passed the lower house where the governing PiS party has a majority, but the Senate initially insisted on its right to scrutinise the measure for 30 days and then ultimately voted against it. The measure returns to the lower house for the final decision. However the government earlier insisted that the Postal Service and election officials should press ahead with preparations for the change.

It is suggested that the government believes an election now is the best chance of its ally, incumbent Andrej Duda, being re-elected. Opposition campaigners and candidates have not, of course, been able to hold rallies or conduct normal election activities and have little access to the mainstream media.

OSCE/ODIHR, Europe’s leading election observer group, has advised that changes to the method of voting, even if approved by parliament, should not be made so close to election day and have also pointed out that the electoral process is about more than the ability to cast a vote.

Despite the election date theoretically being fixed by law, there are still a couple of options open to the government. They could declare a state of emergency which would automatically delay the polls until 90 days after it is lifted. Alternatively, they have to power to delay the election for a couple of weeks.

Government figures have now suggested that early Parliamentary elections could happen as a result of the furore over the Presidential vote.

And in Serbia…

Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic is understood to be considering lifiting his country’s state of emergency and triggering the delayed elections there. The suggested date for the vote is June 21st.

The Seagal. An everyday tale of Russian political life

A while back I wrote that new political parties were being formed in order to contest the Duma elections in Russia next year. The idea being that a few of them might camapaign in the genuine expectation of winning some seats and forming Kremlin-loyalist factions just as United Russia is declining in popularity. Others have no hope of winning seats, but they will draw attention and a few votes away from opposition forces or help to boost turnout.

The plan has now moved on to the next stage as the new parties are rolling out lists of celebrity endorsements and even a few who say they will be putting their name on the ballot paper for their chosen parties. Most of these names don’t mean much outside Russia but one jumps out – Hollywood stuntman turned actor Steven Seagal.

Seagal has appeared in support of Vladimir Putin in the past, having described him as ‘one of the greatest living world leaders’ and was granted Russian citizenship in 2016.

Now he is backing the ‘For Truth’ political party of Zakhar Prilepin. He is on the political council of the party and has apparently expressed a desire to stand for the Duma next year. Whether this latest move turns out to be great drama, or a comedy, may depend on the interpretation given to his role by the Hollywood actor/producer.

For Truth, just like all the other new parties, needs to set up 43 regional branches and win a seat in the regional elections to avoid the requirement to collect 200,000 signatures from across the country – a task which is habitually used in Russia to deny a place on the ballot to genuine opposition parties such as that of Alexei Navalny.

Internet voting is probably not the answer to elections in a time of coronavirus – IFES study

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems office in Ukraine have published a paper looking at the issues surrounding a move to voting remotely via the internet. This is particularly welcome as various commentators have suggested that internet voting could be a response to the problem of holding elections in a time of Covid-19. (You can read earlier thoughts here and here.)

In essence, the IFES paper suggests that whilst new technologies can help to deliver a more efficient election, this is not without risk factors. On the positive side, remote internet voting can help to give votes to the disenfranchised, such as citizens living abroad, people with disabilities and IDPs. It also provides quicker counts without the risks inherent in manual counting undertaken by (often) tired poll workers.

But, internet voting also introduces risks and concerns around security, secrecy, transparency and trust. As with any ‘black box’ technology, there is a risk of hacking and a high degree of faith that citizens need to have that the votes they cast will be accurately reflected in the result. And with no paper trail, if something does go wrong then the process needs to be re-run.

There is also the issue of cost. A significant change such as this would require procurement of the system, training, public information and security. And while the relative cost would go down the more that the system is used, the USA has found that voting technology requires regular (costly) upgrades if it is not to become obsolete.

The only successful nationwide use of internet voting for public elections is in Estonia where the government has invested in smart card readers for each home. These link to home computers and can read the biometric ID card that is mandatory for each citizen. That’s a lot of expensive hardware, even in a country of fewer than one million voters.

In the UK we tried internet voting in some local elections in the early 2000’s. That proved to be technologically problematic, but also failed to raise turnout – the stated aim of the project. It seems that making voting more convenient is good for those already inclined to vote, but unlikely to bring new people to the ballot box.

In the time of coronavirus, it is right that all ideas are considered. But the IFES paper makes clear that the costs and risks of internet voting do not make it a quick fix for the current problems.

Read the full paper for yourself here.

 

Four new Russian parties register in quick time

Four new political parties have been added to the official register in Russia in the run up to the elections planned this autumn and next year’s contest for the Duma. None of these, however, appears to be a party opposed to the current regime.

As I wrote previously, it appears that President Putin is seeking to broaden the range of potential parliamentary parties. The current dominant force – United Russia – has been in power since 2003 and is now severely tainted and riding very low in opinion polls. President Putin can therefore either choose to reinvigorate it or to rely on a range of other parties gaining seats in the Duma. Whetever position he might hold next, he will continue to need to be able to pass legislation and this means having a majority in Parliament – whether in the form of a single party or a group.

The four new parties joining the register are:

  • New People led by Irena Lukiyanova
  • Green Alternative Party, chaired by Ruslan Khvostov
  • For Truth led by Zakhar Prilepin
  • Direct Democracy Party led by Vyacheslav Makarov, one of the creators of the World of Tanks game.

All parties have been added to the register having held their initial congresses. Three of the four were registered within a month of their congresses and the other took less than two months – a speed of registration not seen since the law on registering parties was relaxed in 2012. In order to qualify to run candidates in the September regional elections they will have to register branches in at least 43 regions. Rumours persist that regional officials have been tasked with helping them achieve this goal.

Other potential new parties are still out there and still have time to be added to the register.

One theory being put forward is that the new parties will include a mix of those intended to win seats in the Duma and ‘spoiler parties’ seeking to draw a section of the electorate away from a more opposition-minded party. Some will simply be there to try to get new voters out and to raise turnout. A party aimed at gamers would appear to fit the last of these.

There remains a further hurdle between these parties and the Duma elections next year. They must either secure 200,000 signatures or win at least one regional seat. 

 

h/t to Lincoln Pigman for drawing my attention to this