Russia’s blockchain e-voting is “lipstick on a pig”

By Kitty Knowles 7 December 2017

Russia embraces 'democratic' e-voting - but don't be naive.

Digital leaders like Estonia paved the way for online voting – or ‘e-voting’.

However numerous organisations, including Britain’s Open Rights Group voiced concerns, stalling its adoption in public elections around the world.

“E-voting is a ‘black box system’, where the mechanisms for recording and tabulating the vote are hidden from the voter,” the group states. “This makes public scrutiny impossible, and leaves statutory elections open to error and fraud.”

With the rise of blockchain, however, the floor for debating e-voting has been opened once more.

The idea is: if every voter becomes a link in a digital chain, then it could be possible to permanently record and store each vote transparently.

Votes could be counted and verified by everyone to eliminate fraud.

Don’t drink the kool aid

Now Russia is hardly known for its human rights: under President Vladimir Putin, its corrupt authoritarian government rigs elections, inhibits any opposition, and controls the media. It is literally listed as ‘not free’ in the Freedom House world rankings.

And yet, this week, the Moscow government announced it would be pioneering blockchain for e-voting.

Russian authorities confirmed plans to pilot blockchain within Moscow’s existing Active Citizen platform (this lets locals vote on community decisions around things like public transport, bike lanes, free Wi-Fi, park activities, tree planting etc).

The adoption would make Moscow “the first city around the world to implement blockchain in e-voting on such a large scale”, city officials claimed.

“We are excited to improve credibility and transparency of e-voting system in Moscow by introducing blockchain,” said Artem Ermolaev, CIO of Moscow.

“We believe that blockchain will increase trust between the citizens and the government.”

Authorities even confirmed plans to bring the technology into its other parts of digital governance.

Lipstick on a pig

Moscow’s Active Citizen motto might be “the city entrusts you to decide”.

But there are zero reasons to believe that blockchain can – or is even intended to – fix Russia’s democratic corruption, says Alex Gladstein, Chief Strategy Officer at California’s Human Rights Foundation and a VP at the Olso Freedom Forum – an organisation known for leading debate on how technology can help improve democracy.

“This is merely propaganda for a dictatorship,” he tells The Memo.

“In Russia, much of the electoral fraud happens before the votes are event cast,” he explains. “For example, the opposition is not given a level playing field, and there are incentives to vote for establishment candidates.”

Gladstein isn’t surprised Russia’s been quick to adopt blockchain to “paper over its massive human rights violations”.

“My concerns would be that the Russian regime is able to use buzzwords like ‘blockchain’ to make its voting systems sound more modern and innovative, when they are anything but,” he adds.

There is room for technology to improve politics for people. But transparency and trust go hand in hand, and there’s no point trialling blockchain democracy if you cannot trust a country’s governance.

As Gladstein says:

“This is putting lipstick on a pig.”

Read more:

What technology really means for human rights