The Manila Times - Technologies for Covid-19-proofing elections

17 June 2020

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

MAY 9, 2022 is just about 23 months away. It happens to be the date when registered voters will go to polling places to select a new set of elective officials. It happens to be the next scheduled presidential elections. The Bangsamoro parliamentary elections is also scheduled in 2022.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) should now be in the thick of preparations for the 2022 elections.

Nobody knows how long the Covid-19 pandemic will be with us. If a cure is found soon, then well and good. One thing is sure: the pandemic has an impact on election preparations. Elections have been held worldwide under pandemic conditions, and the Comelec can learn from countries that did.

The pandemic impacts 1) voter registration; 2) voter education; 3) filing of candidacy; 4) campaign activities; 5) voting; 6) counting and consolidation of votes; 7) proclamation of winners; 8) protests and election disputes; and 9) election observation and monitoring.
Each of these activities will have to be examined to determine how the processes will be adjusted. Technology may be used.

The health and safety of voters, candidates, election workers and watchers must be ensured, and, at the same time, their political rights must be protected. In places where anybody has to enter an enclosed place — Comelec office, voting center, polling precinct or canvassing center — temperature checks must be done before entry. Everyone must be required to step on foot baths. Wearing of masks should be mandatory. Alcohol and hand sanitizers should be made available. And social or physical distancing should be strictly observed.

I have previously written about digitally transforming voter registration. A software application that allows registrants to accomplish voter registration forms online may be made available. This may be coupled with a scheduling system so that the registrant can set a schedule when he/she can go and personally appear at a local Comelec office to have his/her biometrics captured. The current process of registration, however, will have to be adjusted to accommodate registrants who do not have access to the internet. The Comelec can manually receive and process a fixed number of applications within one day. A queuing and scheduling system will have to be employed so that registrants who cannot be accommodated on the same day as they appear can be provided with a schedule when they can return.

A lot more webinars are being held today than ever before. Voter education may be conducted online or via television or radio. Education materials may be posted online for download. For those without access to the internet, the education materials, posters and infographics may be printed for distribution.

The Comelec should now explore the possibility of allowing electronic filing of certificates of candidacy. If the candidate is required to personally appear at the Comelec, perhaps a videoconferencing facility may be used to allow personal presence online. For candidates who do not have access to the internet, the traditional way of filing should still be allowed but accompanying supporters should be discouraged.

Campaign activities will have to shift more to television, radio and print. Social media has been used for campaign purposes in past elections. A surge in social media campaign activities can be expected for the 2022 elections. A balance must be found, as the shift may result in excluding candidates who do not have the financial capacity to fund such campaigns and favor those that have access to technology.

Alternative technologies such as internet voting and mobile voting may be explored. But perhaps we are not yet ready to use such technologies for our elections. Transparency, ballot secrecy and security of the process are among the issues that have been raised.

Early voting may be feasible but may require legislation. Local absentee voting may be expanded, but voting is limited only to national candidates. If such option is allowed, voting for local candidates should also be allowed. If the alternatives are not used, surely the voters will have to go to their polling precincts to vote. So that the flow of voters may controlled, perhaps the voters may be provided with a voting schedule. This information may be included in the voter information sheet (VIS) which provides the voter the information on his polling center and his specific voting precinct assignment. The Comelec should prepare the VIS early and ensure delivery.

If the same technology used in past elections is used for the 2022 elections, vote counting will be automated. A limited number of voters and watchers may be allowed to stay at the polling precinct to observe the post-voting activities. Observation and monitoring activities will have to be adjusted.

If the same automated election system is used in the 2022 elections, canvassing and consolidation are automated. The resulting count at the precinct will be electronically transmitted to the canvassing system, first to the city or municipal; thereafter, consolidated results are electronically transmitted through the canvassing hierarchy. Activities at each canvassing center are also open for observation and monitoring, which will similarly have to be adjusted.

Proclamation of winners may be done via video streaming using a technology of choice.
Online or electronic filing of election protests should be allowed. Hearings may be conducted using videoconferencing facilities.

Activities at the polling precinct and canvassing centers may be streamed via video facilities for observation and monitoring.

The use of technologies for the various election activities will surely cause a drastic increase in the cost of conducting elections. A lack of funding may result in unavailability of resources required to hold elections, a risk the country can ill-afford. The budget for the 2022 elections must be ensured.

The show must go on. The 2022 presidential elections must be held. Postponing or canceling the 2022 elections is simply not acceptable.