Mobile app voting — Are we ready?

There has clearly been a trend toward rapid expansion of the use of technology in political and electoral processes. Technology-driven devices are often cited as means to improve accessibility in the electoral process, by removing administrative barriers an improving accessibility.

In many countries, participation in elections has decreased in recent years. The fast pace of technological innovation these days encourages elections officials and aspiring candidates to look into the prospect of mobile-app based voting as a game-changer in the election landscape. This type of voting is considered a potential way to boost voter participation and help restore public trust in electoral processes and democracy.

And so we ask an important question: Is the Philippines ready to adapt a new form of voting?

Convenience and Accessibility

Through the years, the digital world has ushered significant changes in the political arena. In a year-end report by House of IT Philippines, a Philippine-based information technology company, the Philippines was hailed as “The Social Networking Capital of the World.” In fact, social media related programs are utilized in the Philippines as political, marketing, and propaganda tools.

The majority of Filipinos are internet users. Young people who are registered voters, in particular, are dependent on technology. What digital platforms offer at present transcend traditional ways of communicating in the past.

Distinction between Traditional and Internet-based Voting

Now, it is safe to assume that a country active on social media would be able to adapt and shift to an e-voting system. Dr. Steve Kremer of the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation differentiates traditional and online voting. According to him, traditional voting is usually in a controlled, private environment while online voting is remote, and risky due to privacy issues. The path to shifting to an online voting system is a choice that requires national data security standards for online voting applications, and most importantly, funding for states to procure these applications to maintain compliance to the standards.

Countries with Online Voting Systems

Online voting has been implemented over the last decade in over a half-dozen governmental jurisdictions internationally, including as many as 45 municipalities in Canada. At present, only Estonia has an online voting system for national elections.

Here are several reasons why Estonia has sustained this kind of system:

(1) Estonia is the only country in the world to have legislated access to Internet as a social right;

(2) It is one of the most electronically capable countries in Europe;

(3) It has a long history of distrust towards government institutions.

Australia and New Zealand also looked into online voting systems. For New Zealand, the trials never prospered due to financial incapacity. Several trials resulted in lack of maintenance and discontinuation because of inability for large initial investment, lack of transparency of the process and results, concerns about security and voting integrity processes, and other logistical challenges.

Debates over online voting machines and negative experiences with electronic voting machine trials in the United States have stained the reputation of voting machines in general. Ireland, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Finland are four countries that have attempted to introduce remote kiosk voting trials. However, all these attempts were terminated due to several errors in the process.

Voting System in the Philippines

Since the 2010 elections, Filipino voters’ way of casting their votes is to shade the oval shape beside the name of the candidate and insert the accomplished paper ballot to the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) voting machine manufactured by Smartmatic. The automatic tallying of paper ballots inserted into PCOS has a reported accuracy rate of over 99% in the random audits conducted by Commission on Elections (COMELEC). Despite having a high percentage of accuracy, the Smartmatic equipment has caused problems upon its entry in the Philippines. During the final testing and sealing of PCOS machines in the 2013 Elections, several technical problems occurred, including overheating, paper jams, and completely defective units.

In the 2016 Elections, Smartmatic launched Vote-Counting Machines (VCM). According to Smartmatic, the VCM machine is seven times faster and more powerful than the PCOS because of its updated processor and random access memory (RAM). Its external memory capacity is also 512 times larger than the old PCOS.

Despite the upgraded specifications of VCM, controversies prevailed two days before the 2019 Midterms Elections wherein almost 700 Secure Digital (SD) cards were found to be corrupted during the Final Testing and Sealing (FTS) of VCMs. There were also issues on the accuracy of the VCM vote counts, raised by then senatorial candidate Atty. Glenn Chong after finding out how his votes were counted in Camarines Sur. According to Atty. Chong, his scores were counted the same as the precinct numbers. In addition, Vic Rodriguez, spokesperson of former Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., also criticized the efficiency of the VCMs when several hundred malfunctioned during the canvassing of votes for the midterm elections. Lastly, President Rodrigo Duterte also stepped into the issue, calling for the removal of the Smartmatic machines in favor of more fraud-proof technology and tasked DICT to find other providers. The poll technology provider claimed that the machines were already owned by COMELEC since 2018 and the maintenance and operations in the latest elections were all handled by the constitutional poll body.

COMELEC on Mobile App for Voting

Recently, COMELEC Commissioner Rowena Guanzon has been optimistic in testing the mobile app voting system for the 2022 Presidential Elections. According to Guanzon, four developers have offered to test their apps for use in the Philippines. She mentioned that poll watchdog groups such as the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), and Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) will be invited to the testing. Meanwhile, COMELEC is asking the public to send their comments regarding this proposal. 

COMELEC Spokesperson James Jimenez said that COMELEC has been pushing for a mobile app voting system since 2017 due to several factors. These include the difficulty and inconvenience of going to the embassy to cast a vote; and second, the fact that Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) often move from residence to residence without leaving forwarding addresses, resulting in mailed ballots being sent back undelivered.

The proliferation of smartphones and expanded mobile internet access has brought us close to the age of the mobile voting, where people no longer need to go to their assigned precincts to cast their votes. COMELEC believes that internet-based voting is a potential solution for these problems. However, internet-based and mobile app-based voting is currently not authorized by law. Guanzon says that Congress must pass a new enabling law for this novel form of voting should it be proven effective during the test runs.

Iowa's Failed Vote Canvassing App

Early this month the IowaRecorder app, mobile software developed to tally votes in the state's Democratic Party caucuses, encountered a three-day delay in vote counting. This failure raised serious concerns on the integrity of the voting process in the 2020 elections.

Democratic Party officials complained about mishaps concerning the app’s rollout at 1,700+ caucus sites'. Further controversy arose from errors in the calculation and reporting of state delegate equivalents (SDEs) in several caucus locations.

Elections technology companies have been mum about the hastily made app used in Iowa caucuses. According to them, its failure proves that there is a need to seriously invest in a user-friendly, secure election technology to keep the integrity of voting processes intact.

Election Voting Trends

There has clearly been a trend toward rapid expansion of the use of technology in political and electoral processes. Technology-driven devices are often cited as means to improve accessibility in the electoral process, by removing administrative barriers an improving accessibility.

Mr. Roger Do, a social media intelligence analyst, says that online voting is not a global trend. “There are various tests, Estonia has online voting, but that’s because Estonia has a strong national ID card with strong physical security. No increase in turn out is studied, but increasing the presentation of digital savvy voters, so it could disenfranchise a voter who does not have regular access to the internet.” Do said.

On implementing an e-voting system in the Philippines, Do shared that online voting would only create opportunities for viral candidates to run for office without being properly vetted or qualified for the position. According to him, an online voting system’s credibility lies in the transparency of the process, trial that protects anonymity, and a governance structure that makes online voting necessary.

Do also shared that a device that can automatically authenticate identity is the technical device needed for online voting, which, for him, is not possible based on the leakage of COMELEC voter identities before the 2016 National Elections. To shift to e-voting, it is best to have a vote tallying system that can be individually audited that does reveal voter identity.

Lastly, Do thinks that the Philippines and other countries in the world will not be prepared to adapt to an online voting system in the coming years. However, he also believes that technological progression would make an online voting system sustainable in the long run.

Are we ready?

International election experts argue that even if resources are available and the government is able to fund the system, the problem would still be political will.

The battle lies in stirring the desire of voters to actually act and vote. According to them, if voter suppression measures like ID requirements, barriers in registration, limitations on early voting, reduction in polling place hours and faulty e-voting applications prevail, voter participation would still not flourish.

In the end, the success of online voting would also depend on the outcome of COMELEC’s trial run and the willingness of Congress to legislate an online voting system.