The path to online registration

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BY the time voter registration starts up again, we will have lost at least three months out of the registration period scheduled to run throughout the rest of 2020, all the way up to September 2021. With the record of the early days averaging between 80,000 to 100,000 transactions per week—including new registrations, reactivation, changes of name and so on—we can project that about a million voter registration related transactions didn’t take place because of the Comelec’s timely response to the threat of Covid-19.

However, with the disease looking likely to stay with us for much of the foreseeable future, it looks increasingly certain that many parts of the country will be remaining under some sort of quarantine for a while longer. This will inevitably impact when voter registration resumes, most probably leading to hundreds of thousands more people being unable to register, reactivate, or otherwise make sure that they can cast their ballots in 2022. This raises the valid question: Why isn’t the Commission
on Election talking more about online voter registration?

The short answer is that online voter registration is not allowed both under the specific terms of one law, and by the necessary application of another.

Republic Act (RA) 8189—the law that governs voter registration—requires that a person’s registration application form be personally filed “before the election officer of the city or municipality wherein he resides.” This enables the election officer to personally evaluate the applicants’ eligibility to vote in that city or municipality. In many cases, this is done by simply asking questions designed to test the veracity of the applicants’ claims of residence. There have been many cases when such questions have exposed people trying, usually at the behest of political operators, to register in places where they did not actually reside.

RA 10367, on the other hand, makes the use of biometrics—which can only be recorded in person—mandatory. Biometrics ensure that each person registered to vote appears in the list of voters only once, protecting the integrity standard of one voter, one vote.

At the end of the day, both biometrics and the requirement for personal appearance are key security measures that protect against electoral fraud perpetrated on the rolls of voters. Taken together, they define the voter registration process followed today: a person fills up an application form and personally
submits it to the Election Officer; the application is set for hearing by the Election Registration Board; and if the Board approves the application, the applicant becomes a registered voter. Unfortunately, these two rules are also the largest obstacles to making online voter registration a reality.

The path toward online voter registration clearly runs through Congress. Without amendatory legislation that will either relax the personal appearance requirement or prescribe acceptable alternatives to it, there really is no getting around the need to have the applicant appearing before the election officer—and having his/her biometrics registered—in person. And rightly so, considering all the various ways bad actors try to compromise the integrity of the lists of voters.

In truth, with the appropriate legal permissions in place, it is not difficult to imagine how an online voter registration system might work. And certainly, the availability of online voter registration carries with it the promise of many benefits, including the possibility of safe voter registration during this season of pandemic. Nevertheless, great care must be taken to ensure that the protections provided by the existing off-line voter registration system are not carelessly tossed aside simply out of a desire to go online.

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