Elections become digital, but Tatarstan still playing it safe

How we are going to vote on 19 September and why despite the long-time tradition Tatarstan didn’t become a pilot site in online voting

Elections become digital, but Tatarstan still playing it safe
Photo: courtesy of the Tatarstan Central Election Commission’s press service

At another My Vote forum in Kazan, the digitalisation of modern elections in Russia was discussed. Andrey Kondratyev revealed information about electronic voting in Tatarstan in the next electoral cycle. Ayrat Khayrullin assumed that AI will help a citizen choose a suitable candidate or party. Experts not only talked about how digitalisation simplified elections but also debated about how to save people’s trust in the legitimacy of elections. They agreed that there is no right to make a mistake.

First offline forum and greetings from Ella Pamfilova

My Voting forum was held in Tatarstan offline for the first time — the pandemic is stepping back, vaccines are available, it is time to talk offline. In honour of this, the Russian State Duma’s deputy Oleg Morozov said he had been vaccinated, took his mask off and started to moderate the forum.

The introduction of digital technologies into elections became the topic of the meeting. Three months left to Duma elections in Russia, an electoral campaign will kick off soon, and it is time to explain to people how and where they can vote, what technologies will help them and how the sacred three words head of Tatarstan’s Central Election Commission Andrey Kondratyev constantly repeats “Legitimately, Safely, Comfortably” will be provided.

Ella Pamfilova, chairwoman of the Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) didn’t manage to attend the forum (though wanted to teleconference first) but then sent her greetings via Oleg Morozov:

“Now I will deliver them to the main beneficiary of today’s event.”

“The voter?” Andrey Kondratyev hurriedly asked when he saw the deputy turned towards him.

“No, you, of course,” Morozov replied with a smile. “But I am pleased that you identify yourself not only as the head of the CEC but also as a voter.”

After receiving Pamfilova’s greetings, attendees of the forum started to discuss the agenda. Oleg Morozov introduced it:

“Digitalisation is entering the election. But we should use these mechanisms to make our electoral system more transparent, effective.”

Mobile voter, digital voting machine, QR codes, subscription campaign via United Identification and Authentication System...

Chairman of Russia’s CEC Yevgeny Shevchenko and his colleague Anton Lopatin, who is responsible for introducing digital services, attended the meeting via teleconference. They summarised the general information about the upcoming elections. For instance, this is what Russia will choose in September:

  • 8th State Duma deputies across Russia;
  • 9 regional leaders of the Federation in direct elections;
  • 3 regional leaders of the Federation as deputies of representative agencies;
  • 39 legislative assemblies of the Federation’s regions;
  • deputies of representative agencies of capitals in 11 regions;
  • over 32,000 mandates will be substituted in the elections.

And here is what digital solutions will be applied in the elections in Russia:

  1. Mobile Voter: a citizen can vote wherever he wants. There is no need to travel to get an absentee certificate like before. An application can be submitted via State Services of the Multi-Functional Centre, the CEC and District Election Commission. It seems that people liked this technology: if 4 million people used it in voting for the Constitution in Russia, 5,7 million did on United Voting Day on 19 September 2020.
  2. Voting machines: this year, they will be installed at 19,000 polling stations across Russia.
  3. It was decided to use cameras at all stations with more than a thousand registered citizens to see the voting on the video.
  4. Protocols will be provided with QR codes. This will allow making up the final protocol without mistakes, quickly uploading it to Elections State Automated System. The legislation of 20 Russian regions already has norms according to which signatures can be collected in regional elections to support a candidate via State Services using a citizen’s e-signature.
  5. There are scanners automatically comparing voters’ data with the general registry and allowing accurately identifying the authenticity of signatures. Now more than 95% of lists verified by CEC at different levels are authentic.

As for anti-COVID-19 measures, CEC members said that the voting in September would certainly be with masks, disinfection and temperature measuring. But this doesn’t mean that a citizen who turns out to have a high temperature at the entrance won’t be able to vote. Firstly, he will be taken to an isolated room in the District Election Commission, given the chance to realise his civic right and then he will see doctors.

As for the upcoming three-day voting, Shevchenko said that “the probability is very high”.

“We will certainly use these technologies in the next campaign”

Of course, they separately debated about electronic voting. These are probably the main issues that concern a layman before the elections.

Can we vote via State Services?

If so, can I check which candidate I voted for?

Won’t my vote, my account in the United Identification and Authorisation System be stolen?

Won’t the digital voting system become a new way of fraud and a site for falsification at all levels?

Election digitalisation is two-faced Janus. On the one hand, it noticeably simplifies the process, makes it more convenient and available for everybody. On the other hand, a careless step to digitalisation can open a Pandora’s box: there is no room for error, and any failure can destroy voters’ trust in the electoral system in Russia.

Perhaps this is why the Tatarstan authorities decided not to become a pilot region and have carefully stood clear of online voting for the second elections in a row. The system is tested in other regions: during the Constitution voting, it was Moscow, Kursk and Yaroslavl Oblasts, now Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov, Murmansk Oblasts and Sevastopol will join them.

However, a test was done recently — all 85 regions did locally. Experts say the technology is brand new. It doesn’t have analogues in the world, either in technological or cryptographic solutions. This is why its introduction is being treated very carefully nowadays.

“We will expand it in other regions in the future considering the trust, important components,” Lopatin promised.

Andrey Kondratyev joyfully reported:

“59,000 people participated in our training, and we will certainly use these technologies in the next campaign. Online voting is convenient. For instance, why was Murmansk Oblast chosen? Because many go to Russia’s European part in winter but also want to vote. Convenience and security in general became a special area of standards. We create them for voting — and this makes the voter approve the procedure. But we still have to work on this together.”

Ayrat Khayrullin, head of the Tatarstan Ministry of Digitalisation, shook his head:

“I wouldn’t contrast electronic voting with traditional voting. It is a form of hybrid technologies to be able to choose. But here sociology is especially important, what citizens think about it. There can’t be room for error, we cannot hurry up here, most importantly, we cannot do harm. The process can be discredited. Unless these issues are resolved, we would not like to create a precedent in the republic to disrupt the balance.”

By the way, Khayrullin debunked the assumption that electronic voting doesn’t increase the turnout: according to our neighbour Estonia’s experience, the turnout in electronic voting didn’t change. In other words, political activity didn’t increase after electronic voting was introduced.

While Alexander Malkevich, first vice chairman of the Russian Civic Chamber in information society development, said once again that our population wants to become clients of digital services. And therefore people should be provided with a convenient service so that they can not only vote at polling stations but also do this on the sofa or in their workplace. He stressed one more time that electronic voting shouldn’t become an absolute substitute for offline voting.

How is electronic voting system protected?

Cybersecurity of the electronic voting system, as experts think, is provided by the country’s best specialists, in cooperation with IT moguls. But this is a reason why, for instance, a person cannot see whom he voted for after voting.

This is done to avoid the identification of a user and keep the secrecy of voting. Voting electronically, a voter sends his voice, and at this moment a blockchain platform makes his vote anonymous, encodes and makes it impossible to identify. So a vote goes to a candidate, but as soon as it is sent, it stops being yours. This means that you can no longer return and see who we voted for. However, head of the Tatarstan Ministry of Digitalisation Ayrat Khayrullin is sure that a person must have the right to check the vote again (though no more than 5% of voters do this according to foreign experience).

Same Estonia took another road: a user has 7 days to make a choice and he can revoke his vote even three times a day during the week and vote for different candidates. And the last result will be counted. But every country has its own specifics.

Vladimir Kutilov, political strategist, director of Darwin’s Theory agency for marketing communications, told Realnoe Vremya that according to his agency’s research, most people in the republic don’t trust digital voting and prefer going to the poll station and cast a ballot.

Commenting on the distrust, Tatarstan Minister of Digitalisation Ayrat Khayrullin put an example:

“But we anyway use online banking. We used to distrust it too. The change of habitual behaviour raises questions, it is human nature. Here is a simple example: news about the 5G in the Kazan metro became public. It started to be commented that all vaccinated people can update their chip version in the metro. I am joking, of course. But there is some truth — people tend to distrust new things. We should be very open and explain every step to citizens.

The user’s vulnerability is another problem we can be talking about here. It is no secret that one at times doesn’t want to make up a password in State Services, and we reuse other passwords, temporarily put ‘12345’ (‘54321’ if you aren’t so simple), ‘password’, ‘name and last name’, ‘name and date of birth’ and so on. This is why resistance of citizens’ personal accounts to hacking is also an important issue.”

“Fakes mean fibs”

Of course, fakes dedicated to elections became a special topic for discussion. As Oleg Morozov said, the digital world gives rise to a lot of minefields. Andrey Kondratyev said:

“On the one hand, we are happy about digitalisation. On the other hand, we become as open as possible: fakes, provocations, false stories on social media. And we can’t always sensible respond to them. So fakes mean fibs. So we have detected it, and what to do next? It is no secret that numerous fake messages can come from one social account throughout the electoral cycle. This is why, for instance, there can be such a solution: the Russian communications watchdog considers a specific account and bans it to stop the flow of fakes coming from it. And now we have a huge army of people organising the elections and thinking about how to respond to fakes. But it is not they who should be thinking about it. Systemic decisions need to be made for fakes.”

The head of the Tatarstan CEC warns that members of election commissions can become victims of fakes. Pressure will go up, therefore the CEC should train all members of electoral commissions and offer mechanisms to protect them.

Alexander Malkevich traditionally said that fakes allow the industry to develop and detect fibs. He also mentioned a project with bloggers, opinion leaders and observers. In his opinion, media education is an important component of the election, and people should be taught to tell the truth from a fake.

“We should be ready for not only hot but also fiery August and September. There will be a lot of attempts to spread fakes. To oppose an attack of fakes, Malkevich offered to host information meetings, lectures, seminars, preventively teach both journalists and other citizens to distinguish between lie and the truth.”

“Also, we have deepfakes. Let’s develop technical solutions that will catch them in advance. Do we use water filters? We need such filters for incoming information. Otherwise, we will choke in a flood of fibs, while deepfakes will keep improving. Thank God, their quality is poor at the moment and they can be easily detected.”

Oleg Mironov became gloomy and said he remember a deepfake about himself:

“I saw a video of me performing a song at a plenary session...”

Ayrat Khayrullin slightly calmed the audience down: 98% of fakes don’t reach the environment at all — most digital giants, browsers operate to catch such threats. And they do it. While messengers, for instance, famous school chats, are the most favourable environment to spread them.

Vladimir Kutilov thinks that there aren’t clear recipes to detect a fake yet. But children’s education should become the main means of a global job in this area: they should be inculcated a skill of critical thinking.

“We live in the era of post-truth, any information quickly spreads, and then one has to justify oneself, while you aren’t heard anymore. This is why it is necessary to train children’s ability to process information, pass it through their analytic apparatus and make a decision. Today it is the main tool when working with fakes.”

Ayrat Khayrullin’s “electric dreams”

The Tatarstan minister of digitalisation’s dreams became perhaps the most unexpected statement at the forum: Ayrat Khayrullin recalled his recent experience in electronic primaries of the ruling party.

And he saw a new world in which robots not only work hard instead of humans but also make a choice for them.

“Since we have a lot of parties, a normal person cannot sort out promises of parties and candidates. So I think that artificial intelligence will choose a suitable candidate for a person in the future. It will recommend voting, search information depending on your preferences. You answer questions, and AI says, ‘Such-and-such candidate suits these values...”

By Lyudmila Gubayeva
Tatarstan