Digital overseas voting: Use it or lose it
BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Babe Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - May 26, 2019 - 12:00am

If anything, with the kind of resources we spent for the midterm elections – only to have a very low turnout of overseas voters – it’s about time we reviewed the absentee voting system. The process is so tedious and inconvenient, many of our overseas Filipinos simply lost their interest to vote. 

Picture this: Voting packets containing the official ballot, envelope and sealing paper are individually sent by the Comelec to all the Philippine embassies and consulates worldwide. The embassy personnel then have to manually put all these together before sending them out to the registered voters. By the time the overseas voters receive the packets, they are already complaining about the inconvenience of having to go to the post office and spending money to mail back the ballots. Think about the financial and human resources needed to make this happen.

During the 2013 midterm elections, overseas absentee voting turnout in the US was 10.55 percent. While the turnout for the 2019 midterm elections is higher at 17.29 percent – 39,511 votes cast out of the 228,470 registered OAVs – the canvassing of votes was delayed by glitches primarily caused by defective/malfunctioning SD cards at certain precincts in the Consulates General in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We immediately – meaning on the same day – reported the malfunctions to the Comelec OFOV (Office for Overseas Voting) and had to wait for replacement SD cards which again malfunctioned. 

In Spanish, there is a saying which goes, “lo barato es caro” – meaning cheap things can end up being more expensive because they easily break or may require high maintenance costs. In short, false economy.

Reports say there were more than 1,600 defective SD cards, over a million bleeding markers, and close to a thousand malfunctioning Vote Counting Machines which the Comelec said could be due to the low quality of the SD cards. The COA requirement for the lowest bid is again: false economy. 

There are over 10 million overseas Filipino workers, but only 1.8 million registered for the 2019 midterm elections, with voter turnout at a low 20 percent. If even half of the 10 million OFWs register and vote – undoubtedly, their choice can make a big difference in the outcome of elections. With the billions spent on the electoral exercise, there has to be a better way to prevent the wastage of resources and increase the participation and turnout for the OAV.

Last week, Boston-based technology company executives flew in to Washington, D.C. upon my request to show me and select embassy staff a digital app that could solve our overseas absentee voting problem. The system utilizes a secure mobile voting platform accessible via smartphones and tablets (running on either the iOS or Android apps), making it easier for people to vote and the tabulation faster.

Using biometrics and blockchain technology, the app has a three-step authentication process that includes a live video “selfie” or face ID to confirm the eligibility of a voter with the registration base. Once authenticated, the voter can make his choices by selecting a candidate’s name on his gadget’s screen. Overvoting is prevented because one can’t choose more than the allowed number of votes. Voters can also review their choices and make changes anytime before submission.

I asked how secure the technology was and how much guarantee they can give about the integrity of the system, and they explained that they have military grade security that includes data encryption, blockchain and standards used for overseas and military voters. 

From the time the company started the patented app, it has run 37 elections spanning state political parties, governments, universities and organizations and so far, the results have been very positive and promising. The system has worked very well for the pilot programs that include two counties for the 2018 primary elections in West Virginia, then expanded to 24 counties during the November midterm elections. The technology will again be used for the 2020 US elections to enhance participation by overseas voters. Denver also utilized the voting app in its recent mayoral elections, displaying just how far the smartphone voting has come.

I invited the Boston-based tech company officials to visit Manila sometime in the next couple of months. I plan to arrange for them a chance to demonstrate the technology to members of the Comelec-OFOV and some members of our legislature so they can see how the technology works, and assess its potential. 

As early as 2014, Senator Frank Drilon has been urging the Comelec to conduct pilot tests on internet/online voting to enhance the participation of overseas Filipinos during elections. As he correctly pointed out, there is a need to study the technologies utilized by other countries that allow online or internet voting. Besides, the law allows the Comelec to “explore other more efficient, reliable and secure modes or systems… whether paper-based, electronic-based or internet-based technology, or such other latest technology available.”

As one of the advocates of the mobile voting app pointed out, if we want to maintain a democratic system, then we must enable as many people to participate in the electoral process – and this radical technology has the capability of enfranchising Filipinos working overseas, government personnel deployed abroad, and perhaps even the physically disabled and senior citizens who have so much difficulty going to polling places.

Undoubtedly, there will be the “usual suspects” who will oppose the introduction of mobile voting, but I am totally convinced that this is an idea whose time has come. The digital age is upon us – we either use it or lose it.

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