Manila Standard : Comelec to test online voting with US tech firm

News & Interviews
8 September 2021

By Miguel Angelo Magbag and Maria Isabel Gallego | Manila Standard

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) allowed a select few to have a glimpse into its exploration of internet voting targeted for overseas Filipinos.

At the same time, the government’s election watchdog unveiled its partnership with US startup Voatz, whose voting application was flagged by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2020 for its “vulnerabilities.”

In a virtual press launch, Comelec spokesman James Jimenez said around 670 signed up to participate in the pilot simulation of online voting from Sept. 11 to 13, either through Voatz’s mobile or web-based application.

Jimenez told a webinar that elections would be done on site, and negative RT-PCR test results, vaccination cards, and national ID were not required.

The “bata, bata… mulat KNB? The Youth Vote in 2022” webinar was organized by the Philippine Communication Society to highlight the youth’s participation in the upcoming election.

Before the voting, voters were required to undergo health screening including temperature checks and to submit a health declaration form.

Jimenez said, if the voter had a questionable health status he or she would be placed in an isolation polling place for him or her to vote – in a special voting room that observes maximum health precautions intended for persons suspected of having COVID-19.

The Comelec also aims to review how COVID-19 patients will vote as they are either in quarantine facilities or hospitals.

After passing the health screening, voters will go to the voter assistance desk composed of accredited citizens arms whose goal is to control the crowd while helping them know where to vote.

“The common practice before (was that) voters were congested outside of the classroom while they find out where they would vote. In the upcoming elections, we will make use of the voter’s assistance desk,” Jimenez said in Filipino.

Comelec added that the desk was far from the actual polling place and election officials expected there would be a lot of queues surrounded by marshalls.

The polling place will be only limited to five people, three of whom are members of the electoral board -- teachers, a poll watcher, and the voter., compared to the usual number of 10 people voting at the same time plus the personnel during the previous elections.

“This is where the Comelec’s brain is at, this is what we are thinking right now, what we want to do is to reduce the number of people in the polling place. Again, the most extreme possibility that we are entertaining is that we’re going to have five people at the polling place,” Jimenez said.

More physical changes inside the voting precincts will be done to ensure the safety of voters and personnel against COVID-19.

They will set up plastic barriers and for the first time since the post-EDSA revolution in 1986 voting booths will be used, with 12 hours from the time polling booths open to 6 pm when they close.

According to Jimenez, elections cannot be done in multiple days as no law has been passed to allow this and it has “massive security risks” including the security of vote counting machines and ballots as the elections pauses and continues the next day.

Jimenez said the Comelec budget was reduced by 64 percent, leading them not to pursue multiple elections because of inadequate funds to pay the honoraria of teachers if the election was done for two or three days.

Jimenez also said there would be no online voting and postal voting for next year’s elections.

“We considered both of those solutions except that in order to make those solutions applicable to us, we would have needed a law to make it applicable. To authorize the Comelec to conduct online voting and postal voting,” Jimenez said.

At the same time, Comelec plans to increase the number of voting precincts to 110,000 to 115,000 with only 800 voters as compared to 1000 during the 2019 midterm elections.

Jimenez reiterated that voters’ registration would end on September 30 with no further extensions. As of writing, the registered voters are now at 61 million.

Comelec commissioner Rowena Guanzon, in charge of the poll body’s Office for Overseas Voting (OFOV), said the result of the test run would serve as basis whether they would recommend the technology for the 2025 elections.

Under Republic Act 9189 or the Overseas Voting Act, Comelec is allowed to “explore” other methods of voting for the benefit of overseas Filipino voters.

“As you know, Congress has to pass a law to make this possible… It is impossible to use this in 2022.”

“If these test runs are efficient, effective, and cost efficient, I will recommend to the Comelec en banc that we request Congress to consider passing a law to use mobile voting app in the future. We’re looking at 2025, that’s quite possible,” she added.

Guanzon also clarified Comelec did not spend for the simulations.

“I have to appreciate the tech suppliers doing this, such as Voatz, for doing this at no cost to the commission,” she said.

In the briefing, representatives of Boston-based tech company Voatz laid out how its voting technology worked.

For the initial sign up alone, Voatz said participants had to go through “highest levels” of authentication.

“We need to get you authenticated… For this test run, we’re stressing highest levels of security. We’re going to go through the identity verification process which asks voters to take pictures of their passport, we do all kinds of checks here… You’re also asked to do a video selfie,” said Jesse Andrews Voatz director of sales and business development.

Voatz CEO and co-founder Nimit Sawhney added safeguards were in place to ensure the integrity of the voting process was intact in case there were attempts to “intercept.”

“One of the things the application does is as you’re trying to go on board, it does security checks so if the app determines that you’re handset is rooted, jailbroken, or compromised in any other way, or even if you’re using unsafe wifi and somebody is intercepting, the app will not let you proceed to submit a ballot,” Sawhney said.