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Jaspreet Kalra

Voting and blockchain have been a controversial couple but Moscow appears determined to use the technology for a national referendum involving President Vladimir Putin.

Russia will vote on changing its constitution, adopted in 1993, on July 1. The main issue to be decided is whether to allow Russia’s president to stay in power for more than the current limit of two consecutive six-year terms.

Most of the nation will use traditional paper ballots, but residents of Moscow and the Nizhny Novgorod region will have the option of casting their votes electronically and, at least in the Muscovites’ case, having them recorded on a blockchain. 

According to an official page dedicated to electronic voting, Moscow’s Department of Information Technologies, which is working on the technical solution, plans to use Bitfury’s open-source enterprise blockchain, Exonum. 

“The blockchain technology is working in the Proof of Authority mode,” the page says in Russian. “A smart contract for the ballot ledger will be recording the votes in the system, and after the voting is complete it will decode them and publish them in the blockchain system.” 

The Department of Information Systems did not respond to CoinDesk’s request for comment by press time. Bitfury’s spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s involvement in the project.

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Related: Moscow Said to Hire Kaspersky to Build Voting Blockchain With Bitfury Software

“Blockchain-based voting is one of the most important applications of Exonum and blockchain technology overall,” the spokesperson said. “We do not have anything to share at this time, but we will stay in touch with future announcements.”

According to several people familiar with the electronic voting project, the company that built the solution for the Moscow authorities was Kaspersky Lab, the popular anti-virus software vendor that has turned to consulting in the blockchain space in recent years. A Kaspersky spokesperson declined to comment.

Bumpy road

Moscow’s previous experience with blockchain voting did not go smoothly.

In September, residents of several Moscow districts could vote electronically in city council elections. When the code for the system was published, French security researcher Pierrick Gaudry showed that it could be easily hacked. After the voting was complete one of the losing candidates criticized the system, saying the offline results were not consistent with those submitted electronically. 

See also: Bank of Russia Wants to Put Mortgage Issuance on a Blockchain

Roman Yuneman, an independent candidate who ran for a city council seat, published a report describing the weaknesses of the system built by the Moscow authorities. According to the report, the voting had been down for nearly 30% of the time, and Yuneman’s team received 70 complaints from people who could not cast their votes electronically.

Russian news outlet Meduza wrote that the private key for decoding the votes was written into one of the transactions and could be easily retrieved from it, which made it possible to figure out how particular people voted. At the same time, around 12,000 voters’ records were leaked by the system, Meduza reported.

In addition, all the data was collected on servers belonging to the Moscow authorities and was under their complete control, Yuneman wrote. Independent observers could not check the authenticity of the vote count, and in one neighborhood, the offline and online results showed opposite results. 

Low trust

“Electronic voting has a lot of issues even without blockchain, and that was clearly demonstrated during the Moscow elections,” said Sergey Tikhomirov, a blockchain researcher and a PhD candidate at the University of Luxembourg. 

“There was no technical way to observe it and the administrators of the voting could forge the data at any time. And, unlike with the paper ballots, in this case the forgery leaves no traces,” he said.

Blockchain-based voting has proved a tough nut to crack in other countries as well.

One of the best-known blockchain voting apps, Voatz, was blasted after several pilot tests, with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security pointing out the app’s vulnerabilities. So did researchers at MIT

See also: West Virginia Ditches Blockchain Voting App Provider Voatz

Still, governments around the world have been experimenting with the concept, and blockchain voting tests have been underway in Thailand, South Korea, Sierra Leone and India.

Nir Kshetri, professor of management at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, wrote in October that despite hopes blockchain could make elections more transparent and fair, “there’s no evidence yet that it is better at preventing election fraud.”

At the end, it’s the people in power who decide what will be the design of a blockchain voting system and who will have access. The technology does not resolve the issue of trust in the political system, Tikhomirov said.

“If people do trust the election system as such, any method of voting would work, even though the electronic one is riskier anyway. But if there is no trust, the electronic vote makes it even harder to check if the vote count was fair or not,” he said.

Russia has a history of election result falsifications on all levels over the past decade, which has prompted a nationwide movement of volunteer election monitors who report voting irregularities during each election cycle.

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