Voting as an ‘inter-corporate event’ This is the system Russian enterprises plan to use to track employees’ participation in a nationwide plebiscite on constitutional amendments

Kirill Kukhmar / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

https://meduza.io/impro/5d24YyKb3sGecFlaOhOcuN7LZswKp2WhGkkxvG6qo5M/fill/980/0/ce/1/aHR0cHM6Ly9tZWR1/emEuaW8vaW1hZ2Uv/YXR0YWNobWVudHMv/aW1hZ2VzLzAwNS82/NDYvMzA1L29yaWdp/bmFsL0I4ekFtd3Q1/QzZQc0ZGaU9ITVRP/OWcuanBn.webp

Meduza has learned that an electronic system is active in several regions across Russia that will monitor turnout among employees at major enterprises in the country’s upcoming plebiscite on new constitutional amendments (including reforms that could extend Vladimir Putin’s presidency to 2036). Using the website votely.ru, the executives of various organizations can preload staff rosters and assign a unique QR code to each individual. When polling stations open, volunteers on the ground will scan these QR codes under the pretext of holding quizzes and staging contests among voters in order to collect turnout data. According to Meduza’s sources, this system will be utilized in and around Yaroslavl (where it was developed) and in a handful of other regions across the country. Russia’s national postal operator is one of the enterprises that’s received instructions on how to use votely.ru. Meduza obtained access to the system’s demo version and discovered that dozens of Russia’s biggest companies are also registered with Votely, including the defense firm Rostec, the telecommunications company Rostelecom, the petrochemical company Sibur, Russian Railways, Lukoil, and others.

A system for monitoring voter turnout

Two sources — an employee and the friend of an I.T. specialist inside the company — confirmed to Meduza that Russia’s national postal operator is “mobilizing” its computer technicians to monitor staff voter turnout in the country’s upcoming plebiscite, which wraps up on July 1. Technicians have reportedly been instructed to use a system available at votely.ru, which is accessible only with authorization. 

Meduza obtained access to Votely’s demo version and learned that each participating enterprise is assigned a range of barcodes or QR codes. Companies are instructed to upload staff rosters that include employees’ names and telephone numbers, which the website then links to unique codes. According to a presentation published at Votely, the system measures voter turnout by fielding brigades at polling stations where volunteers will scan code-imprinted coupons. 

https://meduza.io/impro/ekyqOMGWnFcI2S2Z_o68TLY2bsT74SBDzqhdqRWOtso/fill/980/0/ce/1/aHR0cHM6Ly9tZWR1/emEuaW8vaW1hZ2Uv/YXR0YWNobWVudHMv/aW1hZ2VzLzAwNS82/NDYvMzYxL29yaWdp/bmFsL0g3anE1WDE1/S0Y5TDJhSGppWXl6/QVEuanBn.webp

A screenshot from the demo version of Votely’s interface. The column headers read: “industries,” “assigned,” and “voted.”
A screenshot from the demo version of Votely’s interface. The column headers read: “industries,” “assigned,” and “voted.”

One document available at votely.ru states that these QR codes will be scanned under the guise of “additional voting” conducted alongside Russia’s nationwide plebiscite. The platform has also published instructions about how to stage quizzes where towns will be awarded special titles and how to conduct public surveys on locally salient issues. Several regions across the country have already announced various quizzes, contests, and lotteries available to anyone voting in the plebiscite. In Barnaul, Nizhny Novgorod, Izhevsk, and other cities, plebiscite voters will have the chance to cast unofficial ballots to determine which town is honored for its “labor valor.”

Federal election officials have said they will permit these side contests and quizzes at polling stations during the plebiscite, so long as volunteers do not interfere with the real voting process.

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Votely’s mobile apps for scanning QR codes and collecting turnout data are already available in the iOS and Android app stores, where the developer claims they are intended to “register and view participants at any major inter-corporate event.”

On the day of the plebiscite, administrators registered with Votely will be able to access turnout information in real time, broken down by enterprise, industry, and region. Registered executives, sectoral ministers, and regional leaders will also be able to obtain the phone numbers of all employees who don’t vote. Turnout data will automatically populate XLSM files submitted by company management listing employees and their unique codes. Meduza accessed a demo version of votely.ru that listed the names of several major enterprises registered with the service (Russian Post, Rostec, Rostelecom, Russian Railways, Lukoil, and others), but the online portal did not reveal how many employees at these companies have been assigned QR codes.

One source told Meduza that major firms in the Yaroslavl region and Altai territory plan to use Votely to monitor employee voter turnout. A second source says businesses in the Lipetsk region recently abandoned a similar initiative. In the past few days, journalists at Ura.ru and Reuters have reported that various state and corporate enterprises intend to use QR codes, scanned at quizzes and contests conducted on voting day, to monitor turnout in Russia’s plebiscite. 

Votely has been active for a few years already. In 2018, the news website MBK Media reported that businesses in the Yaroslavl region tracked voter turnout through a mysterious service that operated using the votely.ru domain. 

The man behind the curtain

Meduza has learned that the person responsible for creating Votely’s entire system is a man named Ivan Valentinovich Petrov who lives in the city of Rybinsk. In a phone conversation with Meduza, Petrov declined to comment on the details of Votely’s operations. Minutes after this call, Meduza’s access to votely.ru abruptly ended.HOW DID WE IDENTIFY PETROV?

Ivan Uraev, an entrepreneur in Rybinsk who employed Petrov in 2006 as his company’s CEO, says Petrov is “about 40 years old” and educated as a technical specialist.

Ivan Petrov

https://meduza.io/impro/S5jLo2dNww-_3zFkQD1A4uexdSjgyq2rjAu4YfOat_g/fill/650/0/ce/1/aHR0cHM6Ly9tZWR1/emEuaW8vaW1hZ2Uv/YXR0YWNobWVudHMv/aW1hZ2VzLzAwNS82/NDYvMzU3L29yaWdp/bmFsL0Z6WUVfbTk1/djRsYkhXUUJpWXdK/WXcuanBn.webp

Ivan Petrov
Ivan Petrovisplash76 / YouTube

Uraev says Petrov was a model employee, ascending the corporate ladder for three years, until he disappeared one day and stopped answering his phone. “Then I discovered that he’d stolen our company’s entire project and client database, found an investor, and made himself director of a competing company in Yaroslavl. I haven’t seen him again since then,” Uraev told Meduza.

Petrov co-founded two competitors to Uraev’s business, both times partnering with Alexander Sovetov, whose family is famously powerful in Yaroslavl. For many years, Valentin Sovetov (Alexander’s father) managed one of the region’s largest real estate developers, “Yaroblstroyzakazchik,” which participated in a major reconstruction project ahead of the 1,000th anniversary of the city’s founding. Until recently, another Sovetov served as a local municipal deputy.

After a couple of years, Petrov was apparently forced to abandon this business. At some point in the mid-2010s, he took a job as a back-end developer for another real estate company in Yaroslavl. It was in this role, an acquaintance told Meduza, that Petrov first started designing software to meet the needs of Russia’s state authorities (such as a website for the “We’re Deciding Together” gubernatorial initiative in 2017). 

Petrov’s new employer was a housing and real estate company owned by two men with years of experience in software development and telecommunications. “SPARK-Interfax” records show that the business and several affiliates belong to the brothers Alexander and Vladimir Bychek. Meduza was unable to verify that Petrov worked for the Bychek brothers and a spokesperson for their company denies ever employing him, but multiple sources say he collaborated with their firm to develop its iOS mobile app.

Regional officials in Yaroslavl, Lipetsk, and Altai did not respond to Meduza’s questions about the use of votely.ru to track voter turnout in Russia’s upcoming plebiscite. Russia’s national postal operator had not provided a comment on these findings at the time this story was published.

(C)MEDUZA 2020

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