"Digital Leap". Ella Pamfilova – on the development of the electoral system in Russia


December 29, 2020, 03:03 PM

TASS (tass.ru)

Five years separate two campaigns for the election of deputies of the State Duma of the Russian Federation. It would seem that there are the same polling stations and the same protocols on the voting results, but the people, our compatriots, have become different, the demand for social and juridical justice, for the participation of citizens in all processes of the country's life, including an increase in exactingness towards candidates, have formed in the society and are growing. And, of course, the elections to the State Duma in 2021 will reflect these trends. We have already, without wasting time, started preparations for the upcoming, very difficult election campaign, relying on the base that has been created since 2016.

All these years, the priority in the Central Elections Commission (CEC) of Russia work has been to ameliorate and develop the electoral system itself, to cleanse the election process from possible violations and falsifications, to adhere to the principle of openness, accessibility, transparency and, as a result, ensure the reliability and legitimacy of election results at any level. Many development processes that were initiated and implemented over these years have already become irreversible.

First, on the initiative of the CEC, the "Mobile Voter" mechanism was launched. Now it is difficult to imagine that back only in 2016, at the elections of deputies to the State Duma, a rather cumbersome and costly mechanism of absentee ballots was used, with which major scandals were associated, while counting of votes lasted for several days.

How many controversies took place around the "Mobile Voter" when I first proposed to abolish "electoral serfdom"! The general opinion then was – "It's impossible!" And now the implemented "Mobile Voter" system allows any citizen, wherever he is, to vote by submitting an application to a territorial or precinct election commission, to a Multi-functional center or at a State Services Portal, at any polling station convenient for him, if for any reason he cannot vote where he permanently resides. This is extremely important for our country, spread out over the vast territory in 11 time zones. At the same time, in comparison with the previously used absentee certificates, the system is simpler, more convenient and transparent for candidates and observers. The state, having spent about two hundred million on its creation, now makes it possible for our active and mobile citizens, whose number is growing every year, to save their time and billions of rubles of their personal funds, which earlier, "with absentee certificates", were spent on transportation and other expenses.

And most importantly, the "Mobile Voter" has become a popular mechanism recognized by voters.

The demand for the "Mobile Voter" was demonstrated at the Presidential elections in the Russian Federation in March 2018, when 5.7 million of our fellow citizens were able to vote where it was convenient for them. It is safe to predict that at the Federal elections to the State Duma in the coming year, many voters also will take advantage of this opportunity.

Secondly, control over the progress of elections by observers from parties and candidates is now significantly strengthened by the introduction of the institution of independent (public) observation of the entire voting process: observers, on the basis of a wide representation, can be appointed by the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation and by public chambers of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation. The CEC of Russia creates all the necessary conditions for expanding the capabilities of observer communities during elections as a prerequisite for ensuring the reliability of the vote count. As a result of this work, the number of observers of the voting process is growing from year to year.

In September 2020, about 255 thousand observers monitored the voting – an average of four to five people at each precinct.

Thirdly, for the organization and conduct of elections, the system "Unified Portal of State and Municipal Services (functions)" ("Gosuslugi" or "State services" for short) is used. As a result, "Gosuslugi" Portal is actively used to inform voters, to support the "Mobile Voter" mechanism, to submit applications for voting at home and to operate other services.

Fourth, the political landscape of Russia has changed over the last years. In 2016, 74 political parties had the right to participate in elections, of which 14 had the parliamentary party benefit and could participate in the elections of the State Duma deputies without collecting signatures in support. As a result, the representatives of these 14 parties that got on the ballot. Today we have a fundamentally different situation. The number of political parties eligible to participate in elections has dropped to 37. However, party competition has intensified, although it may appear paradoxical. "Dummy" parties are gradually leaving the political arena – there remain those who really have a certain support of voters and can fight for their votes. For example, in 2020, the overwhelming majority of parties eligible to participate in the elections went through election campaigns at various levels – 30 political parties and 6 social movements participated in the last elections; the average competition for one mandate for the elections of heads of regions was 8, for the by-elections to the State Duma – 7.5.

At the same time, we observe a tendency towards a decrease in the number of refusals to register candidates. If in 2016, in all elections on the Single Elections Day this indicator was 7.22%, then in 2020 it amounted to only 4.84% of applicants for elective positions at various levels, while the rejection of candidates from parties was even lower – only 3%.

Based on the results of the Single Elections Day 2020, three new parties registered this year received the right to go to parliamentary elections without collecting signatures. Thus, at the elections of deputies of the State Duma of the eighth convocation, 16 parties would be exempted from this procedure.

It is clear that elections to the State Duma require dedication of huge human, organizational and financial resources from parties. It is unlikely that all 37 parties are capable of seriously fighting for federal parliamentary mandates.

For its part, the Central Election Commission of Russia, and the entire electoral system as well, create the most open and friendly conditions possible for the participation of political parties in elections. So, in 2021, digital services and personal accounts of political parties will be launched on the Unified Portal of Public Services. They will allow parties to promptly receive information regarding their participation in the elections. The CEC of Russia plans to hold a number of large-scale training seminars that will allow them to approach the elections as prepared as possible.

Fifth, the procedure for collecting and verifying voters' signatures in support of the nomination of candidates and lists of candidates is being improved. In particular, a requirement has been established for the handwritten entry of not only the signature and date, but also the surname, name and patronymic of the voter. In addition, the possibility is provided for collecting a number of the signatures of voters (no more than half of the total required) with the use of the "State Services" Portal in elections to the bodies of state power of the constituent entity of the Russian Federation. The CEC intends to consistently expand this modern type of signature collection in the regions for the upcoming elections.

Sixth, in the context of a pandemic of the new coronavirus infection, the electoral system faced a difficult task – to organize and hold elections, while ensuring the safety of life and health of all participants in the electoral process. To this end, amendments were made to the legislation, providing for the possibility to postpone voting when a high alert regime or an emergency situation is introduced and when there is a threat to the life and (or) health of voters, referendum participants.

An important innovation was the ability to conduct voting for several days in a row (but no more than three days), which allows ensuring the sanitary and epidemiological safety of citizens during elections.

For election organizers, voting for many days is hard work and an even higher responsibility. But we understand that this option expands the possibilities of our voters during elections, and to a greater extent ensures their electoral rights, making their participation in the life of the country more accessible, convenient and safe. It is important that the format of the multi-day voting is positively received by the majority of Russian citizens.

According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center “VTsIOM” poll conducted in September 2020, 84% of respondents noted the convenience of voting within three days. And 77% supported holding elections in a similar format in the future.

As for the issue of using multi-day voting in the elections to the State Duma in 2021, it is still premature to talk about this. The Central Election Commission will make a decision on this depending on the epidemiological situation and taking into account all other factors that will be relevant by the time the election campaign starts.

Seventh, gradually, in the form of consistently increasing pilot projects, a system of remote electronic voting (“DEG”) is being introduced, which allows citizens to participate in elections using their electronic devices with Internet access from anywhere in the world. By the way, during the implementation of DEG pilot projects, the turnout at "electronic polling stations" in 2019-2020 exceeded 90% of voters included in the list for participation in remote electronic voting in all elections where it was used.

To record the votes of citizens, the "blockchain" technology is used, which guarantees their safety and the secrecy of voting.

At the same time, we are not talking about replacing traditional forms of voting – the expansion of the use of DEG is carried out along with the improvement of traditional, basic forms of voting, which no one is going to abandon. Nevertheless, the development of DEG expands the possibilities for voters to choose among methods of voting. The main requirements that we will be obliged to fulfill before a decision is made on a large-scale (I emphasize, exclusively voluntary) use of electronic voting is the complete invulnerability of the system to external unauthorized interference, ensuring the secrecy of voting, along with creating a system of public and political control of e-voting, guaranteeing a high level of trust from the public.

Eighth, the introduction of a video surveillance system, which is nowhere used as widely as in Russia. One can observe the entire voting process – from the first ballot dropped into the ballot box to the entry of protocols on the voting results into the State Automated System GAS "Vybory". At the presidential elections in the Russian Federation in 2018, video surveillance covered areas where approximately 80 percent of Russia's voters vote. I believe that in the upcoming elections of the State Duma deputies of the 8th convocation, we will maintain this high plank.

Ninth, in terms of the speed of counting votes, we have long ago "caught up and surpassed" most of the developed countries of the world, and this should be considered taking into account the distances and time zones of our country. Thanks to the introduction of the technology of QR-coding of the protocols of precinct election commissions, 98% of the protocols are entered into the GAS "Vybory" System by midnight of the voting day. Any observer can compare the data of the protocol issued directly at the polling station with the data entered into the GAS "Vybory" system.

Should it be discussed that the delay in determining the voting results casts doubt on the integrity of the election results? During this year’s autumn, we all witnessed on the example of the Presidential elections in the United States, what such delays in the counting of votes can lead to.

Tenth, the current CEC of Russia always reacts sharply to any facts of violation of electoral legislation, both by members of election commissions and by other participants in the electoral process.

This principled position of the CEC of Russia allowed the Commission, together with regional commissions, during the period from 2016 to 2020 to achieve invalidation of the voting results at 87 polling stations in connection due to violations of the electoral legislation, that did not allow to determine the results of the voters' will with certainty. Compared to the volume of campaigns and polling stations involved in them, this number is negligible, but the very fact that this is done by decision of the commissions themselves testifies to their principled approach to ensuring the legitimacy of the electoral process.

At the same time, the dynamics of cases where it would be impossible to establish with certainty the results of voting at polling stations and they require cancellation, have noticeably declined in recent years – the vast majority of such cases – 68 – was noted in the period from 2016 to 2018. According to the results of the 2019 Single Voting Day, the commissions canceled results at 15 polling stations, and in 2020 – only at four polling stations.

An important step in improving the electoral system is to strengthen measures to suppress illegal actions. In recent years, on our initiative, serious changes have been made to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and to the Code of Administrative Offenses in terms of toughening criminal and administrative responsibility for crimes related to violation of the law during elections.

This resulted in a significant reduction in the number of real, confirmed violations of electoral legislation.

So, if among the complaints received by the CEC of Russia during the election campaigns on a Single Voting Day on 18 September 2016, the facts were confirmed in 8.11% instances, then for the election campaigns that took place on 13 September of this year, only 3.35% instances were confirmed.

The process of consistent "cleansing" of the electoral system of people who have committed violations is going on. The CEC of Russia insistently demands that these people not remain in the composition of the commissions, and in some cases – that based on these established facts, inspections by law enforcement agencies are carried out and appropriate decisions are made.

So, due to the violations committed in the period from 2016 to 2020, the powers of almost 50 members of territorial commissions and more than 300 members of precinct commissions were terminated before scheduled expiration.

In general, the past five-year period can be safely called a digital breakthrough in the electoral system of Russia.

Created and successfully implemented "Digital Standards" of the electoral process: – Mobile Voter mechanism; – preparation of a protocol on voting results with a machine-readable code (QR-coding); – video surveillance; – the use of electronic means of counting votes (KOIB); – organization of work of our unique Information and Reference Center of the CEC of Russia; – "arming" members of election commissions with a modern electronic work book, which makes it possible to more competently and efficiently resolve many issues arising in the election process, etc.

Quite recently, all these elements were perceived as innovations, but now they are the usual standards for holding elections in our country.

Unlike many countries, the Russian Federation does not practice the use of non-transparent forms of voting – voting by mail and "many months" early voting.

In 2019, the CEC of Russia became a member of the Digital Economy National Program. We must create digital services for all participants in the electoral process and a new digital platform that will ensure provision of all these services. This platform will become a new, modern version of the GAS "Vybory" system and it will be introduced gradually.

Until the end of 2020, it is planned to implement the service for nominating candidates to territorial election commissions at the State Services portal. In the future, it is planned to also implement services for submitting financial statements of candidates, political parties and electoral associations, submitting and checking documents.

In 2021 and beyond, it is planned to implement digital services for other categories of participants in the electoral process – in particular, for observers and media representatives. Work is underway to create services for precinct election commissions, state bodies, local government bodies and institutions that interact with the electoral system.

The introduction of "digital electoral standards" has qualitatively changed both the elections themselves and the summing up of their results. But this is just the beginning. Russia's electoral system is on the verge of a "digital leap". The introduction of digital services for all participants in the electoral process opens up the possibility of wider participation of citizens in the political life of the country, and makes the electoral procedures more accessible and friendly. Smart, expedient digitalization of the electoral process does not displace a human being, but, on the contrary, gives him the opportunity to be in the center of events, increases the role, status and confidence in the expanding capabilities of the human personality.

So, summing up, I would like to emphasize that the electoral system of Russia is a live, developing organism that already now ensures openness, transparency, accessibility and convenience for citizens during elections. As a result, the level of confidence on the part of citizens in the country's electoral system is growing.

Unlike in some other countries, government bodies in Russia are elected by citizens in direct, competitive elections.

As for openness, the counting of votes in the Russian Federation is not carried out by special officials, as in a number of Western countries, but by members of precinct election commissions appointed by political parties or delegated to commissions directly by citizens at public meetings. At present, representatives of almost all existing political parties work in the composition of precinct election commissions, fully reflecting the country's political palette.

It is hard to imagine, but almost a million people work in election commissions of various levels – this is the population of countries such as Montenegro and Iceland counted together. Over the past years, the composition of both precinct and territorial commissions throughout the country has changed qualitatively, the representation of various political parties has increased. I am especially glad that young people come to work in election commissions. They are not indifferent, but active and responsible. People are our greatest asset, the bulwark of the entire electoral system.

In total, there are three important components that ensure legitimacy and emphasize the nationwide character of elections in Russia: direct, free vote of voters; organization of all voting procedures and counting of votes by election commissions, the composition of which fully reflects the political cross-section of the country; full control of society over the course of voting, carried out by a diverse and numerous observers community.

Moreover, in Russia, during Federal elections, unlike, for example, in the United States, the presence of international observers at polling stations is not limited (in the United States, in 18 states there is a complete ban on the presence of international observers, in a number of other states there is a partial ban). And we had over 1,500 international observers at the last Presidential elections in 2018 – from OSCE and other organizations!

Accredited foreign journalists, along with representatives of our domestic media have the opportunity to cover the voting process at the polling stations, including during vote counting and drawing up protocols on the voting results. In a number of Western countries, media representatives, especially from Russia, are not even allowed to come close to this "sancta sanctorum".

Despite the unfavorable international atmosphere, we intend to continue to develop international cooperation and partnerships, but only and exclusively on the principles of equality and respect for each other, to share our experience and adopt the best foreign practices that correspond to our national interests.

Source: https://tass.ru/opinions/10376477