As Russian Voting Moves Online, Putin’s Foes Say Another Path To Curb Kremlin Is Lost

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."

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

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.

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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.

Ella Pamfilova, head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, gestures while speaking on Sept. 24, after recent parliamentary elections in Moscow. © Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Ella Pamfilova, head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, gestures while speaking on Sept. 24, after recent parliamentary elections in Moscow.

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.”

>[Russia’s rising young communists pose an unexpected new threat to Putin’s grip]

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.)

The Smart Voting app is displayed on an iPhone screen in Moscow on Sept. 17. © Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP The Smart Voting app is displayed on an iPhone screen in Moscow on Sept. 17.

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.


Video: Polls close in Russia’s three-day election (The Washington Post)

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