Amidst conflict and confusion over online voting results for this year’s parliamentary election in Moscow, concerns appear to be increasing that the Russian government is promoting blockchain-based e-voting to frustrate public scrutiny of the ruling United Russia party's hold on power.
If most Russian voters register to vote online in 2024, when President Vladimir Putin could run for a fifth term, the government will be able “to solve all its problems at the touch of a button” and announce that “everyone” voted for Putin, charged political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov.
“Who voted there and how; who in reality was registered [to vote online]; are these the same people who voted; can this be trusted?” Krasheninnikov elaborated. “Already, all of these questions remain unanswered.”
Amidst reports of rampant voting violations, the Central Election Commission (CEC) already has found itself on the defensive over the offline vote for Russia's September 17-19, 2021 parliamentary-regional elections. Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova has not acknowledged any major violations to date.
To head off questions about the online vote, the CEC planned to discuss the country’s e-voting “in detail” on September 24, the announcement date for the final results from the September 17-19 parliamentary-regional polls.
The questions, not limited to the opposition, focus primarily on Moscow, a city of over 12 million, where more than 1.93 million people voted online. United Russia dominated the field, with no opposition candidates recommended by jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's Smart Voting app winning individual seats.
In five of Moscow’s electoral districts, three candidates from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), one candidate each from the Yabloko and New People Parties, and one independent candidate saw their leads over the ruling United Russia party vanish after e-voting results were added to the final vote tallies.
“Three days [of voting] plus remote voting -- it’s like a two-stage bomb that will blow up society’s stability and finally discredit that stability that the president has been creating for many years,” Communist Party General Secretary Gennady Zyuganov, stated during a September 23 online meeting with party members, Interfax reported.
Based on the parliamentary election’s final results, the KPRF finished second to United Russia with 57 seats in the 450-seat Duma. United Russia received 324 seats; a share sufficient to retain a supermajority that allows it to pass legislation unilaterally.
Three parties -- A Just Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and New People -- all received under 30 seats each, while another three, smaller parties gained one seat each. Five non-party-affiliated candidates also were elected.
The Communists, a sometime Kremlin ally, claim election fraud, however, and have refused to recognize Moscow’s e-voting results, in which their candidates uniformly lost. On September 20 and 23, they staged unauthorized protests in downtown Moscow attended by a few hundred people. A third protest is planned for September 25.
Some Moscow Communists also have joined a multi-party coalition that will push to have the city’s e-voting results thrown out and the Duma pass a law that bans online voting.
But supporters of Moscow’s Remote Electronic Voting (DEG) system counter that detractors simply do not understand the technology behind Russia’s online voting.
“The electronic voting system was honest, transparent, secure, and, in any case, cleaner than the traditional system of voting with paper,” asserted Aleksei Venediktov, head of the Moscow Public Election Monitoring Center, a monitoring group that encourages dialogue between the government and the public.
Venediktov, who doubles as the influential editor-in-chief of Moscow’s Ekho Moskvy radio station, announced on September 23 that the Center had detected no sign of hacking or fake votes in their “audit” of Moscow’s online voting results.
His assertions of the system’s security rest on blockchains, the technology behind cryptocurrencies.
Russia’s overall online voting system was assembled by the state-controlled telecommunications provider Rostelekom, “with assistance” from the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media. Aside from Moscow, it was available in five of Russia’s 49 regions (Kursk, Murmansk, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov, and Yaroslavl), plus the Russian-occupied Crimean city of Sevastopol.
But Moscow developed its own system. Its DEG, designed by the city’s Department of Information Technology, relies on encrypted blockchain networks developed by Kaspersky Lab, a private Russian cyber-security firm suspected of links to the 2017 hacking of U.S. National Security Agency documents. (The firm, run by former KGB-trained cryptologist Eugene Kaspersky, denies such charges.)
Often called a “digital ledger,” a blockchain connects blocks of encrypted data on a chain, or network, of computer systems. The blocks are interdependent; any information or transactions recorded on one will be duplicated on the chain’s other data blocks.
In DEG’s case, according to the Central Election Commission, if an attempt is made to change votes, the affected block can be deleted from the network, which will still retain the block’s original data.
An “encrypted algorithm” ensures that voters’ identities cannot be determined from their submitted online ballots, the CEC maintains in a video explainer.
For voters to download and scrutinize the overall results, the Moscow Public Election Monitoring Center has made available a numerical code or key.
Only candidates, election observers, and election officials received parts of a second, private key that, when joined together enable them to decode the data to calculate vote tallies, the CEC says.
But while encryption may provide a certain degree of security, a blockchain itself can be programmed to meet various purposes. That potential reflects critics’ concerns.
Critics: ‘A Space-Alien System’ For Voting
Election observers and mathematicians interviewed by Current Time declined to explain how Moscow’s e-voting allegedly had been falsified. That did not prevent them, however, from criticizing the system.
Election observer Roman Udot, a leader of the non-governmental election watchdog Golos (Vote), described it as “a non-working system.”
“This system does not reflect the votes of voters,” Udot concluded. “For that reason, there’s no point in using it for elections.”
According to the Moscow Public Election Monitoring site, Udot noted, the system sent out 20,000 online ballots in Moscow during the first hour of voting on September 17. But 100,000 votes were received within that same timeframe.
“That is, if we believe our editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, it works out that 20,000 idiots went onto the [DEG] site and, within an hour, changed their political views five times,” he objected.
“Such a thing hasn’t happened before on this planet. It’s possible that this is some kind of space-alien system with which we’re not familiar,” Udot fumed.
Venediktov, who has become e-voting’s most outspoken champion, dismissed what he termed Udot’s “incompetence” on the topic.
To correct votes made under pressure, Moscow’s system is the only DEG that allows repeat voting -- a feature on which Venediktov said he insisted. Only the last vote cast is included in the final results.
This feature, however, led to a 12-hour delay before Moscow’s e-voting results could be tallied, Venediktov acknowledged. “The slowdown is my responsibility,” he said.
Some observers maintain, however, that those hours could have been used for casting fake votes – a frequent practice in Russian elections.
Mathematician and physicist Sergei Shpilkin, a former member of the CEC’s Scientific Expert Council, asserts the delay should prompt election officials to cancel Moscow’s online results.
Such a delay “demonstrates either the system’s complete incapability of working and its lack of preparedness to work, or that there is some kind of malicious acts,” charged Shpilkin.
He conceded, however, that he understands “very badly” how e-voting functions.
Kasparsky Lab, which won a 268.7 million-ruble ($3.7 million) contract to develop Moscow’s e-voting blockchains, has acknowledged the delay, which, it said, “significantly exceeded initial expectations.” It has pledged to accelerate the blockchains’ processing time for future elections.
Plotting The Government’s Victory Curve
The lag time in tallying Moscow’s e-vote is not opposition candidates’ only concern.
Anomalies in the pattern and times of Moscow’s e-voting caught the eye of 28-year-old independent Duma candidate, Anastasia Bryukhanova.
Bryukhanova claims that an analysis of the downloaded data shows that “all Muscovites who support government candidates” decided to stop voting on September 19 at 2:30 p.m. After waiting 40 minutes, they then “returned and continued to vote,” she alleged.
“There’s no way that this is mathematically possible,” Bryukhanova asserted. “This means that someone was adding votes into the system and stopped during this time for some reason.”
She claims that this same behavior occurred in her district, no. 198, where United Russia candidate Galina Khovanskaya ultimately prevailed. Brukhanova has petitioned the CEC to annul the race’s e-voting results.
Some votes were registered after the polls closed on September 19, she said. Moscow Public Election Monitoring’s Venediktov, though, stated that a 15-minute lag occurs for online voting because "people are voting at the last second."
HSU University mathematician Aleksei Zakharov also noted anomalies in the distribution of Moscow’s online votes that, in Zakharov’s words, uniformly favored United Russia and suggest “widespread falsifications” online.
Venediktov, however, objects that, as in the U.S. 2020 presidential election, parties that did not encourage online voting, like the KPRF and A Just Russia, fared worse in the online results.
Such reasoning enrages jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who saw candidates recommended by his Smart Voting app defeated in every Moscow race.
In a September 23 tweet, Navalny blasted Venediktov as “a criminal” and lackey to President Putin who should stand trial “for participating in the falsification of the elections.“
How To Observe A Virtual Vote?
Russia’s 2021 e-voting was not a first. Online voting was allowed in Moscow’s 2019 local elections and legalized for national elections in 2020. Both Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod held online polls for the 2020 vote on constitutional amendments.
But throughout this time, no mechanism for real-time observation of the online vote has been devised.
That has left critics feeling left out in the cold.
“This is really a non-transparent system …” commented Yabloko’s Marina Litvinovich, another defeated candidate from Moscow's election district no. 198 and part of the Moscow coalition of defeated candidates opposing e-voting. “As a candidate, I cannot understand how which votes were taken into account.”
In its current state, Moscow’s e-voting system appears to be “under the control of neither candidates, parties, nor a community of observers – basically, no one,” objected defeated Communist Party candidate Maskim Lobanov, another coalition member.
The concept of blockchain networks that, unlike paper ballots, cannot by assessed physically disconcerts 59-year-old Shpilkin, who described the e-votes as lying “in some unclear location.”
Kasparsky has stated that the blockchain networks are run “in a geo-distributed data processing center,” but did not provide its exact location.
Venediktov has urged critics to simply download and scrutinize the networks’ data to verify its accuracy.
But one volunteer at the Moscow Public Election Monitoring Center noted that, even for IT-savvy voters, Moscow’s e-voting was “non-transparent.”
“[T]he current system of online voting does not correspond to the high demands of electoral procedures that are under a society’s control.” Golos’ co-chairman, Grigory Melkonyants, posted on Facebook.
Virtual Voting For The Future
As yet, the Central Election Commission has not displayed any willingness to recount Russia’s online votes. In Moscow, the city’s election commission noted that, under current law, a court would have to order a recount.
Russian courts, though, are generally seen as subservient to the government.
Communist Party leader Zyuganov has stated that he will raise the issue of e-voting falsifications during a September 25 meeting between President Putin and parliamentary party leaders, but the Kremlin has not yet indicated any inclination to scrap e-voting in Moscow or beyond.
President Putin himself, in self-isolation after possible exposure to COVID-19, voted online on September 17, the first day of voting in Russia's parliamentary-regional elections.
In a September 23 remark, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed the desire for e-voting to spread “promptly” throughout the country, but cautioned that “everything will depend on this system’s readiness.”
Moscow’s e-voting supporters maintain the blockchain system will be ready for the 2024 presidential elections.
“Of course, we will make it more modern, we will correct it,” Venediktov said. “We have things to think over and things to work on, but it is secure, fair, and transparent.”
-With additional reporting from Interfax, Novaya Gazeta, RIA Novosti, and TASS