Culture & Society

Can Online Voting Fix Russia’s Broken Electoral System?

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A growing disillusionment with democracy in Russia. Can online voting help?

flickr / sime simon under Creative Commons

A growing disillusionment with democracy in Russia. Can online voting help?

MOSCOW, Russia – Confidence in Russia’s electoral system is as low as it’s ever been since the fall of the Soviet Union. Ballot stuffing, so-called carousel voting (where busloads of voters are driven from polling station to polling station to cast multiple ballots) and media bias were widely reported in both the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011 and 2012. With another generation of Russians and the international community becoming increasingly disillusioned with Russian democracy, a growing movement is pushing a novel solution: the right to vote online.

Maxim Osovsky is online voting’s leading advocate in Russia. A member of the board of management for the Fund for the Development of e-Democracy, he first latched on to the idea when managing the leadership primaries in 2004 for the now-defunct Union of Right Forces, a liberal party founded by reformers from Russia’s first post-Soviet government. Osovsky thought that the existing system, where each regional party branch nominated a representative to vote on its behalf, was ineffective and unsatisfactory, often leaving parties with leaders who did not enjoy the support of their own members.

“I then suggested my concept: that candidates travel around the various regions of the country, campaign for votes and then we would hold Internet elections,” he says.

Clean-shaven and wearing neat, dark-framed glasses, Osovsky describes his ideas with a tone of weighty precision. He seems more like an architect than a political activist. Internet voting is his principal preoccupation, but since losing faith in the idea of becoming a politician, he has taken on many roles, from advising the Russian State Duma on technological development to working as general director of a law firm specializing in corporate debt collection.

Now he’s excited about his plans for e-democracy, and eager to be understood.

“Many opponents surfaced against my ideas, saying that these would not be fair elections, that we didn’t have the technology for Internet elections,” he says. “It occurred to me that we could learn from the European experience.”

In Switzerland, both universities and regional governments have experimented with Internet voting. Today, half of Swiss cantons, or states, offer it as an option. In 2005, the tech-savvy nation of Estonia became the first country to offer nationwide Internet voting for local elections. While only 1.9 percent of the population exercised this new right, the move was deemed a success. Today, Estonian citizens with an electronic identification card can vote online in local, national and European elections.

Osovsky, who some time ago worked for the Russian Central Election Commission, an experience he says gave him further insight into the potential effectiveness of his ideas, argues that if Internet elections were introduced in Russia, they would drastically reduce costs and travel for both voters and officials. At the same time, they would dramatically increase voting accessibility for the young and those with disabilities, no small thing in the world’s biggest country, where there is little support for the disabled.

His biggest claim, though, is that e-democracy can restore voter confidence in elections. The contested Russian parliamentary elections of December 2011 provided a long-awaited breakthrough for e-democracy, as more than 100,000 people took to the streets of Moscow, furious that their votes had been stolen. Osovsky explains that in 2004, “I myself began to preach like an evangelist of Internet voting in Russia. Nine years have passed since, and I feel we don’t have to do this anymore, as the necessity for it has become clear to all. It makes for fairer elections, as a machine has absolutely no motivation whatsoever to commit fraud. It’s simply a calculator that counts.”

Back then, Osovsky had set himself the goal of holding an online election in Russia with several thousand participants, to demonstrate the viability of Internet elections. In October 2012, he achieved this when he helped the newly formed Russian Opposition Coordination Council hold its primaries online. This opposition movement, an amalgam of disparate dissident voices from across the political spectrum, was the ideal platform for an experiment in Internet democracy, as it included many who had made their names exclusively on the Runet, the lively world of the Russian Internet.

Osovsky concluded the operation was a qualified success, since 170,000 voters registered and 82,000 cast their votes from homes, offices and Internet cafes. The election had to be extended, however, after the council’s servers fell victim to a cyber-attack from unknown hackers. The principal criticism was that the online electorate represented only a tiny fraction of the population—namely, the Web-loving, young and predominantly Muscovite opposition.

Osovsky rejects the notion that Internet voting disproportionately favors the Internet-literate, pointing out that e-voting is not intended to replace conventional methods but instead complements them.

“I think that there are two burning issues,” he says. “Firstly, young people will vote more; I think that is a very positive thing. We are not preventing anyone from voting by ordinary means, but young people are not taking part, though, through these ordinary means.”

“The second is the notion that young people will take their grandmother’s computer and vote on her behalf,” he continues. “But I don’t think that there is anything in e-voting that you don’t have in ordinary life. That is to say that all the risks that exist in ordinary voting exist in electronic voting. It doesn’t solve the existing problem of young people telling their grandmother which candidate to vote for.”

In Osovsky’s view, the rise of e-democracy is inevitable. And he has a warning for the state: As Russia’s vibrant online community expands, people will take to Internet voting by themselves if conventional elections continue to lose credibility.

“If the state does not have a fair, transparent and electronic system of elections, people will, in the end, abandon the state and will vote, through a cheap, electronic system, for their own new, alternative government,” he says. “If the government is reluctant to change, they will have their government and the people will elect their own, through whatever means they have.”

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