Online voting for OFWs

Published October 26, 2020, 9:46 AM

by Atty. Gregorio Larrazabal


Atty. Gregorio Larrazabal

Recently there was a discussion on voting systems for elections and the possibility of using online voting for future elections.

Internet voting, though relatively new, was done by Comelec way back in the 2007 mid-term elections specifically, for Filipino voters based in Singapore.  It was a pilot project which was done to determine the effectivity of online voting for Philippine elections.  It was not done again, due to a number of reasons.

Based on studies, online voting has been shown to have questions as regards the integrity of the votes cast.  In fact, in discussions on voting systems in the world, online voting stands out as the most prone to vote manipulation.  In the world of automated election systems, a paper-based electronic voting system is leaps and bounds more secure.  Why?  Let me explain.

As reference, I will use the system used in the Philippines, which is the OMR (Optical Mark Reader) voting system.  It’s basically a scanner which reads the votes cast in a paper ballot fed into the voting machine.  The machine interprets the vote/s in the ballot, generates a receipt and records the votes.  At the end of the voting, the machine generates an election return which is a total of the votes cast by all the voters of the polling precinct.

As compared to the DRE (Direct-Recording Electronic) voting system or the DRE-VVPAT voting system (VVPAT means Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trait – or simply a receipt), the OMR is reliant on the paper ballot as basis for the votes to be tallied.  Auditing the votes is better because it’s easier to audit.

In terms of management of risk to the voting system, there are more steps that can be taken to mitigate the risk of breaches in an OMR and even a DRE-VVPAT voting system.  Specially since the OMR voting system is OFF-LINE during the voting and is online only during the transmission of election results to the different servers.

On the other hand, online voting makes the votes exposed because the system is not only vulnerable from the time the voter access his/her account and casts a vote; it’s prone to hacking even before, when the system goes online.  In terms of voter and vote security, it’s a nightmare scenario because of the susceptibility to online attacks.  Since it’s not paper-based, the ability to audit not only the votes but also the access to the voting system is much more difficult, if not close to impossible.

The only country of note that used online voting which I can recall is Estonia, but they built up their infrastructure for over a decade for this to be viable.  Currently the total voting population of Estonia is about 1.3 million voters.  There are probably more voters in Quezon City than in the whole of Estonia.  In the upcoming Nov. 3, 2020, US presidential elections, three states are allowing the experimental use of online voting.  Take note, it’s not the main method of voting, but just a pilot project, very limited in scope.

In one study done for one vendor of an online voting system just recently, the report said: “At worst, attackers could change election outcomes without detection, and even if there was no attack, officials would have no way to prove that the results were accurate. No available technology can adequately mitigate these risks. So we urge jurisdictions not to deploy OmniBallot’s online voting features.” Michael Specter and J. Alex Halderman were the researchers behind the report.

Internet voting, at this time, might not be the best path to take for Overseas Absentee Voting.  The more viable alternative is to strengthen the current voting system for Filipinos voting overseas.  Strengthening the system includes making it more transparent and auditable.  This will encourage more overseas Filipinos to register and vote. Not only for the May 9, 2022, elections, but future elections as well.

Stay Safe.  Stay Healthy.  Wear  Mask.  Register as a voter.