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Russia's E-Voting Getting Off The Ground, Literally

Two women stand near a digital board displaying preliminary results in Russia's regions of the nationwide referendum in July 2020. Critics fear the new system's lack of transparency and voter-verification safeguards could open the way for vote manipulation.

The countdown is under way for Russia's controversial e-voting platform, which will be debuted in the upcoming State Duma elections by some very remote voters, including a cosmonaut and a polar explorer.

But the initiative, which was approved along with mail-in voting as part a raft of changes to the electoral legal framework in the past year, has not exactly enjoyed a trouble-free launch ahead of the September 17-19 vote.

Critics have warned that the system's lack of transparency and voter-verification safeguards could open the way for vote manipulation. And smaller-scale trial runs led to accusations that e-voting had skewed results during the Moscow city-council elections in 2019 and that city workers were pushed to vote online during the plebiscite on constitutional amendments in 2020.

This time around, the system is intended to serve more than 16 million eligible voters in seven Russian regions, including Moscow, with advocates arguing that e-voting will make it easier for "remote voters" to vote during the coronavirus pandemic.

Election officials have said that more than 1.8 million people have already registered to use the system -- and cars, apartments, and "prize points" are being dangled in front of Muscovites in an effort to get even more to register ahead of the September 13 deadline.

Cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, who is currently aboard the International Space Station, and polar explorer Anton Ivanov, who is in Antarctica, are reportedly among the more far-flung voters to have signed on.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of newly minted Russian citizens living in regions of eastern Ukraine that are waging a Kremlin-backed separatist conflict against Kyiv are being allowed to vote using the system under the auspices of the bordering Rostov region.

While officials have acknowledged that a final test run this week uncovered some unspecified "irregularities" that need to be ironed out before the system goes live, they are spinning it as a positive.

"This is very good, because it is very important to fix everything now so that the voting process goes smoothly," said Ilya Massukh, who oversees the Central Election Commission's remote-voting program.

But some observers are already looking ahead to Russia's next presidential contest, when remote electronic voting could be introduced nationwide.

"It is suspected -- precisely because there is administrative coercion to participate in e-voting -- that the system is being tested ahead of the 2024 presidential election," Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in written comments to RFE/RL.

"It is difficult to say whether falsification is possible," he added. "Rather, it is a test."