On March 5, participants of the Moscow Civil Forum discussed the e-voting experiment currently planned for the elections to the Moscow City Duma. On the surface it looks as if the decision to organize remote voting on September 8 has already been made and it’s only the matter of specific details of its implementation. However, until the federal law has been approved, the matter of this experiment should not be considered settled.
Not everyone had the opportunity to speak in the course of the 2.5-hour discussion, but the management of the Central Election Commission, Moscow City Election Commission, Moscow’s IT Department and the representatives of Golos Movement, KPRF, Just Russia, Yabloko parties, the Party of Changes, Navalny’s team and other activists managed to speak their mind.
The official position of the Golos Movement regarding the planned Moscow experiment is reflected in the declaration. In this text I will comment on the key information from the e-voting developers that is currently available to us.
- Official website of the Moscow mayor (https://mos.ru) was initially envisioned as the e-voting platform, but after the critics pointed out that it’s managed by Moscow government, other opinions were voiced on the possible creation of a separate website. It should be taken into account that the Moscow City Duma elections are organized by the Moscow City Election Commission and its platform should be used for the e-voting system, and the commission should have absolute control over this process. The platform should be independent both of the political players and of the bodies of authority.
- It was promised that the website will have indicators with the numbers of submitted e-voting applications and the numbers of those who voted. The idea is to see in real time the statistics that could be used to bring to light various spikes and such. It is currently unclear whether the logs will be made public along with the indicators.
- Blockchain technology will be used for e-voting, and it was promised that the source code for the algorithm of vote movement would be published prior to the start of the campaign. So far, no country in the world has used this technology in the elections of government bodies. There’s only information about it being used for various polls. For example, in August 2018, the government of the Japanese city of Tsukuba completed the trial of blockchain technology to process 119 votes. After each participant provided their ID, the device gave them an opportunity to vote for the social projects that interested them. Afterwards, the system encrypted the received data and transmitted it to the blockchain that’s protected from introduction of any changes.
- The integrity of blockchain will be violated in the event of intervention and modification of data, and this, according to the organizers, will make it possible to discover the break-in. Regarding this important matter, it is currently unclear whether monitoring of this integrity will be open to all the interested parties or just to the developers.
- An algorithm will be provided for monitoring and control, in particular, a mobile application is promised for monitoring purposes. It is currently unclear what this algorithm will include, what the monitoring will entail and who will be given the access privileges.
- The secrecy of ballot will be guaranteed by the series of proxy servers that will be selected randomly for each voter. In the case of blockchain, it is currently unclear how to guarantee the right to revote if the vote will be anonymized (separated from the voter) after the ballot. The ability to revote is necessary for the instances of controlled voting, when the voter should be given an opportunity to amend their selection that was made under pressure.
- A special “e-voting commission” will be created. The chairman of Moscow City Election Commission Valentin Gorbunov made a surprising proposal to appoint Andrei Buzin or Arkady Lyubarev as this commission’s chairman. Of course, I would sleep better knowing that the vote encryption and decryption keys are placed in reliable hands and won’t be used until the end of election. But I am worried about who will be the actual organizer of e-voting: contracted developers or the members of the commission who would understand what is happening to the system and be able to control the programmers? In Estonia, for example, a special Committee on E-Voting Issues was created, made up of seven experts and IT specialists. They are professionally immersed in the technological details of the system’s functioning and assume responsibility for its reliability and integrity.
- There are plans to duplicate e-voting on paper. At the location of the “e-voting election commission,” a printer will be placed under CCTV cameras, and following every e-vote, it will print out certain codes on fiscal tape in real time. If there is going to be a hard copy, then there should be a procedure for the test count of votes.
- The district where e-voting will take place will be selected by draw. It seems that the experiment in Moscow is a just an accelerated preparation for the universal introduction of e-voting at the federal elections of 2021 and 2024 (or the early elections if they are held). Having said that, we believe that elections to the Moscow City Duma are inappropriate for such an experiment, because they create a situation when the voters from different districts partaking in the same elections will be given different rights and opportunities, thus violating the principle of electoral rights equality. For example, only in the district with e-voting, the voters absent from the district will be able to influence the results of elections.
- It has been announced that legal and technical working groups have been established to discuss and accumulate the proposals for the work specification and the draft legislation of Moscow, and that invitations to join these groups have been extended to the representatives of political parties, social organizations and expert groups. Right now, Moscow’s IT Department is actively working on the development of the work specification. It is necessary to understand its status in this process along with the roles played by the Moscow City Election Commission and the working groups. Plus, we have to find out who the contractors and subcontractors will be, will there be an open tender, and to resolve other anti-corruption issues.
- The proposal for the system’s open testing prior to its use in the elections received support. In my own presentation at the roundtable discussion I gave the example of e-voting in the Swiss elections, where the system is currently undergoing public testing, with the engagement of experts from around the world and the payment of large compensations to those who are able to manipulate the votes, retrieve the ballot data, violate the secrecy of ballot, disrupt or circumvent the safety systems designed to protect the voters. In light of this, Alexei Venediktov (editor-in-chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station) promised to announce the prize from the Civic Chamber of Moscow and to provide access to the system to all the international hackers so that they try to compromise it.
That being said, the risk of someone wanting to compromise the e-voting on September 8 is very high. On March 6, speaking at the FSB forum, Vladimir Putin said that Russia should be prepared for increased cyberattacks against the government bodies, mobile operators and state corporations. “These are well-planned large-scale operations capable of causing serious damage to the national interests of our country,” he said. According to his information, the number of attacks against the Russian servers has grown from 1,500 in 2014 to 17,000 in 2018. It’s difficult for me to judge the objectivity of this data, since the bureaucracy often distorts statistics, but it should be clear that the problems with e-voting may simply abort the election. This is why I suggest that e-voting initiatives are viewed in light of national security matters and treated with utmost seriousness. This is no game