The results of Russia’s September legislative elections are not only important in and of themselves, they provide a preview of how Vladimir Putin intends to govern and secure his own victory in the 2024 presidential elections. Now that the campaign is over, the elections have been officially deemed “conclusive and valid,” and the new Duma has been formed, there can be no more doubts about the direction in which Russia is moving. The Kremlin’s goal is clear: the ability to declare victory in any situation, regardless of how the people actually vote.
During the latest elections, the Kremlin deployed a wide arsenal of traditional and new methods of fraud and manipulation. Traditional methods have involved measures, including preventing any viable independent candidates from running, manipulating voter lists, mobilization of administrative resource, ballot box stuffing, and falsifying the vote tally.
New methods have included remote electronic voting in areas that have long been a thorn in the authorities’ side, such as Moscow. An opaque electronic voting process controlled by intelligence agencies has enabled the Kremlin to announce the victory of approved candidates, simultaneously making it impossible to challenge the elections or their results.
Last month, the authorities combined both methods, and—at least according to the official published results—they have succeeded. Nevertheless, the old primitive methods of electoral fraud have left behind a trail of scandalous evidence making it obvious that the victory of pro-Kremlin candidates was unfair and was only made possible due to the introduction of electronic voting data. In Moscow and some other regions, opposition-minded citizens have even managed to defeat government candidates at the polls. This had been unheard of in Russia for a very long time and is in itself a rather compelling evidence that Putin’s authority is no longer as popular as his propaganda claims.
Therefore, in order for United Russia to make its targets, the Kremlin assaulted Moscow with an “electoral atomic bomb”—electronic voting “data” was used to rewrite the numbers at every polling station, ensuring victory for all candidates advanced by the government.
As it turns out, without the boost provided by electronic voting, Putin’s candidates are no longer competitive. At the same time, the targeted use of electronic voting begs the question: why is it that people vote differently at polling stations, while those who vote online seem to pick whomever the authorities want?
The state propaganda response boils down to the claim that the opposition urged people to vote at polling stations, while those who support the government actively registered for online voting. Let us briefly consider this claim, determine whether it is even possible, and what exactly electronic voting means in Russia.
Electronic voting has several mechanisms of depriving citizens of their own political choices. It is in essence a process through which citizens actually lose control over their votes and have no influence over which candidate or party they end up voting for. Moreover, citizens are unable to verify the results of their own votes or even prove that any fraud took place.
One such mechanism is the required pre-registration for the electronic voting. Given that the entire procedure is organized by the state, citizens cannot be assured in confidentiality of the process and are thusly dissuaded from later voting for “wrong” candidates. The average Russian is deeply convinced that since the entire system was created by the state, his or her vote will be disclosed to the authorities. Even if that is not actually the case, that belief is wide-spread and is actively promoted by those who benefit from it the most—the authorities. Considering that the Kremlin and local leaders were very overt and unceremonious strong-arming citizens into registering with the electronic voting system, any shred of doubt was gone—one would have to be extremely naïve to believe that the authorities would not take advantage of the opportunity to find out how people voted and punish anyone who did not vote as they were asked to.
Many Russians whose salaries come from the government budget (which includes teachers, healthcare workers, etc) participated in electronic voting at the behest of their superiors, turning them into Putin’s electoral asset. Without being coerced into registering with the electronic voting system, these people would have either not registered online, or would have not voted at all, like the majority of the population.
The second mechanism is the voting itself. Even if we were to assume that a citizen still voted differently from the instructions of authorities, there is no way to tell whether such a vote would actually be counted for the candidate he or she supported. Moreover, the possibility of “re-voting,” in which voting results can be corrected by alleging that people changed their minds, raises many questions.
Also problematic was the final vote count. It gave a strong impression of crude rewriting of the vote numbers to bring the results at the polling stations in line with authorities’ wishes by adding the necessary votes to preferred candidates.
Within such a system, authorities can claim victory in any elections —simply by announcing that the majority of those registered are government supporters and “correcting” any voting results at the polls in their favor, as we saw happen in Moscow.
Despite all of the grave violations and red flags raised by Russia’s legislative elections, officials are jubilant with Putin himself calling electronic voting a progress that cannot be stopped and should therefore be introduced throughout Russia and expanded in scope.
Electronic voting saves local and regional authorities a lot of trouble—no matter how people vote at the polling stations, the winner is always known in advance, though Putin is scarcely concerned with the matters of local administrations.
For Vladimir Putin, preparing for presidential elections is the ultimate task, as his entire system of power hinges on the overwhelming majority of voters voting for him in the first round of elections, and then interpreting that majority as a mandate for autocratic rule.
As the latest legislative elections have shown, even with strict control over which candidates are actually allowed to run, there is still a real challenge posed by Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting,” —when everyone who disagrees with Putin’s policies consolidates their votes around one of the registered candidates, no matter how toothless and nonviable.
Of course, the authorities can simply use traditional methods of fraud to avoid the danger of protest votes, though the costs of administrative mobilization throughout Russia and the thousands of incidents of fraud cast a negative shadow over the elections.
Putin’s popularity is waning, and people are getting tired of him, a tide that can hardly be turned around. At the same time, it is vital for Putin to demonstrate a fair and unconditional victory. If this trend continues, the scale of fraud during the 2024 presidential elections might render a devastating blow to the entire system. This is where electronic voting comes into the fore. As we have already noted, this type of voting, as it is practiced in Russia, allows the authorities to add tens of millions of votes for Putin with a push of a button, and to “correct” the results from polling stations. This is what underpins the optimism of Putin and his entourage when it comes to electronic voting, and their grandiose plans to introduce it throughout Russian territory.
Ideally, Putin would like to build an electronic system in Russia in which the authorities are able to formally win elections at every level, without the nuisance of real people’s opinions, and fraud takes place behind the scenes, rather than in plain sight. Naturally, achieving that requires continued repression of independent media and any government critics, but the Kremlin seems to have bet on rolling out electronic voting, which Putin and his inner circle plan on leveraging in order to continually reappoint themselves indefinitely, without any surprises at the polls.
What are some options to reverse this trend? It is clear that demanding an end to electronic voting and its results, under the threat of refusing to recognize the election results is the only viable tactic. We can hardly expect the Kremlin to meet those demands, in which case the West should refuse to recognize the authority of Russia’s new parliament and its deputies. Practically speaking, this is unlikely to complicate dialogue with the Russian authorities, given that the Russian Parliament has long been denied any real political weight, and simply reflects Putin’s position. However, that decision might at least force Putin to consider that if he deploys the same manipulative technology during the presidential elections, the West might refuse to recognize those result, too, thereby relegating him to the same pariah status as the likes of Lukashenko and Maduro.
Despite Putin’s constant insistence that the opinion of Western democracies are of little concern to him and the Kremlin, the reality is that Putin needs the West to accept him as Russia’s leader—after all, the alternative will lead to his own entourage questioning his legitimacy.
The West’s refusal to recognize Russia’s legislative elections might be its last bargaining chip over Putin, who is preparing to eliminate even the theoretical possibility of losing elections.