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Smart Voting App, Removed by U.S. Tech Giants, Threatens Putin’s United Russia Party in Recent Duma Election

Russian Opposition leader’s Aleksei Navalny Smart Voting Strategy  (Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Russian Service has been providing remarkable coverage of the recent Russian elections.  Held from September 17th-19th:  “Russians voted for a new State Duma, as well as legislatures in 39 regions and nine regional governors.” This most recent Russian election also provides clear evidence that the Russian Government is meddling as much in their own elections, to achieve the Kremlin-designed outcome, as they have in recent American elections  – with one RFE/RL headline proclaiming:  “Hacking Servers. Online Blocking. Police Raids. Information Attacks. What Won’t The Kremlin Do To Stop ‘Smart Voting’?

According to the RFE/RL, this type of Kremlin activity to influence the final result of the election is also seen by many Russians as a dry-run for the 2024 Presidential election.  In 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s super-majority United Russia ruling party amended the Russian Constitution, allowing Putin to seek two more terms as president and potentially remain in office until 2036.

The following summary of RFE/RL coverage of the Russian election also provides a timeline of two notable technology-driven events which occurred during the election and arguably impacted the final result:  the shutdown by Google and Apple of a voting app designed by Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his team (to challenge United Russia, using inventive crowdsourcing to turn out the vote for the aggregate vote of all non-United Russia candidates on the ballot); and the cloning of the same software by allies of the Kremlin.

While the activities of the Kremlin in this election victory are not surprising, they remain disturbing and discouraging.  They also speak to how seriously the Kremlin takes the electoral threat represented by these opposition crowdsourcing platforms.  There is the potential scenario that, over time, these technology-based opposition efforts could lead to significant atrophy of United Russia’s electoral majority – if not at the Presidential Election level – at the very least in gubernatorial and mayoral races all over the country, which does not bode well for the long term stability of the Putin regime.

The Election Result

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)  announced in August 2021 that, for the first time since 1993, the OSCE  would not be able to observe the election due to restrictions imposed by Russian authorities.

According to the RFE/RL:

  • An independent monitoring agency called the three-day vote over the weekend “one of the dirtiest” elections in Russian history.
  • The election is widely seen as an important part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cement his grip on power ahead of a possible run in the 2024 presidential election, making control of the State Duma key.
  • With 99.9 percent of ballots counted, the Central Election Commission said early on September 20 that United Russia, which backs Putin, had won nearly 50 percent of the vote for the 225 seats apportioned among parties in the State Duma.
  • Its closest rival, the Communist Party, had just under 19 percent, and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party received 7.5 percent. Two other parties, A Just Russia and a newcomer party, New People, had received 7.45 percent and 5.33 percent, respectively.
  • Another 225 lawmakers are chosen directly by voters, and the results showed United Russia candidates leading in 198 of those races.

Source:  Garry Kasparov – Russian Chess Champion and Harsh critic of the Putin regime

The Origins of the Smart Voting Strategy

The smart voting strategy and mobile application were launched in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

The RFE/RL video describing the smart voting strategy quotes Navalny in 2018 at the launch of the voting effort:  “The parties themselves cannot agree and nominate a single candidate against United Russia. But we can agree on this. We are different, but we have one policy — we are against the monopoly of United Russia. Navalny went on to say:  “Everything else is mathematics. If we all act smartly and vote for the strongest candidate, he will win, and United Russia will lose.”

by 2020, political scientists in Russia generated a study of the 2019 Moscow City Duma election results, using “electoral behavior theory to demonstrate how the change of public opinion, protest mobilization, and electoral space transformation ushered a victory for opposition candidates. Electoral behavior of Moscow citizens has changed significantly compared to the last election: there is an obvious increase in protest and tactical voting.”

“These voting methods are different by nature, motives, and goals, but this time they found common ground in candidates, making it possible for analysts to discuss the effectiveness of the opposition’s new strategy. The authors insist that “Smart Voting” should be regarded as tactical voting, as protest voting has no direct relationship with this strategy. Measuring the quantitative impact of the two voting methods helps to identify no more than six constituencies where the strategy was most significant and five constituencies where it could have been significant had other candidates ended up on the “Smart Voting” list. However, the strongest impact on election results was created by a decreased competitiveness across constituencies and the change of public opinion that allowed focusing voters’ attention on the more consequential opposition candidates.”

Smart Voting App – A Regional Clone

In what falls under the category broadly of a disinformation campaign, a clone of the Smart Voting project was launched in Russia’s southern region of Krasnodar.  Branded as “Rational Voting”, RFE/RL unearthed the Kremlin-affiliated owners of the cloned site:  “…the website was originally created by the New People party, a political outfit that’s considered part of Russia’s “systemic opposition.  The “systemic opposition” comprises parties that compete for votes with United Russia but are beholden to Moscow-based leaders who largely toe the Kremlin line.”

На Кубани появился двойник Умного голосования

Source:  In the Kuban there was a double of Smart voting | Voice of Kuban (golos-kubani.ru)

The Campaign and Mobilization Metrics Putin Sees as a Threat

The Russian Election Monitor is an initiative run by a group of “European scholars, former and active politicians, and public officials united by the strong belief that Russian voters have the same right to democratic and free elections as every citizen in Europe does.”  Working from detailed reports provided by Golos (a Russian organization for public observation of elections) the initial Smart Voting Strategy and the subsequent app shutdown are described in the following terms:

“The situation around the “Smart Voting” project, a tactical voting strategy put forth by politician Alexey Navalny to a segment of opposition-minded voters, deserves a separate analysis. The concept consists of a recommendation to vote in single-mandate districts in a coordinated manner for a non-administration candidate, whom the initiators of “Smart Voting” have identified as an alternative leader – a candidate who has the best chance of winning among all of those formally in opposition. Coordination is via a mobile application.”

Riddle, a research group that specializes in a deep analysis of all things Russian, provides the following positive campaigning and voter mobilization metrics which represent significant traction by the Smart Voting strategy and mobile app prior to its shutdown.

  • “The “Smart Voting” effect in the 2020 regional elections reached 5% in administrative centers of the regions and 7-8% in Moscow and St. Petersburg (although it was not noticeable in rural areas). At the same time, the mention of “Smart Voting” in social networks and in search queries of Internet users at that time was low (and, of course, it received very little mention in the media).”
  • In the 2021 election, “the visibility of “Smart Voting” is incomparably higher. If we compare the frequency of mentions of the phrase “smart voting” in social networks with mentions of parties participating in the elections, it takes fifth place, surpassing one of the parliamentary parties – “A Just Russia – For Truth”.
  • In terms of a potential audience, “Smart Voting” would be third overall, overtaking even the LDPR and the “New People”  parties.

Source:  Team Navalny CEO Ivan Zhdanov

Golos concluded:

“All of this has led authorities to actively fight [the Smart Voting Strategy] and all tools for its implementation. The “Smart Voting” symbolism has been considered political and extremist by the government and people are arrested for distributing it. In an astonishing development, Rospatent (Federal Service of Intellectual Property) received a complaint from Woolintertrade, a tiny sheep wool production, and processing company in the Stavropol region of Russia claiming that the “Smart Voting” trademark was identical to their own. Not only did a Moscow court block the logo from being further used, but it also ordered Google to stop displaying the term “Smart Voting” in its search results – just two weeks before elections. In another example of government pressure, both Apple and Google were forced to remove the “Smart Voting” app from their app stores after warnings of criminal liability. Telecommunications operators in Russia started blocking Google Docs on the evening of September 15.”

2021 Russian Election Coverage:

Outsmarting The Kremlin? How Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ Works. (rferl.org)

No OSCE observers for Russian parliamentary elections following major limitations | OSCE

‘A Dress Rehearsal’: Russia’s Marred Duma Elections Could Point The Way For 2024 Presidential Ballot (rferl.org)

Hacking Servers. Online Blocking. Police Raids. Information Attacks. What Won’t The Kremlin Do To Stop ‘Smart Voting’? (rferl.org)

Kremlin-backed United Russia Claims Big Victory In Elections Amid Crackdown, Fraud Allegations (rferl.org)

With ‘Smart Voting’ Strategy, Russian Opposition Takes Aim At Putin’s ‘Party Of Crooks And Thieves’ (rferl.org) 

Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ Backs Communist Candidates In Bid To Loosen Grip Of Ruling United Russia

Russian Journalist Arrested For Posting About Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ (rferl.org)

Fraud Allegations Mar Second Day Of Russian Elections, As Opposition Smart Voting App Suffers New Blow (rferl.org)

In Another Blow, Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ Project In Russia Is Being Cloned (rferl.org)

Fake About Fakes: Russian Election Commission Airs Apparently Falsified Video Sullying Its Critics (rferl.org)

Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ App Disappears From Apple, Google Stores In Russia (rferl.org)

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.