ESPRESSO MORNINGS

By Joe Zaldarriaga

Lowball

The Philippines is set to conduct its first-ever online voting for Filipinos abroad next year —a milestone in the country’s suffrage history and a move that signals commitment towards greater digitalization.

With millions of Filipinos around the world expected to participate in the 2025 midterm polls, the need to ensure the reliability and integrity of the online voting system cannot be overemphasized given concerns about potential fraud and cybersecurity threats.

Last month, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) announced that the joint venture of SMS Global Technologies, Inc. and Sequent Tech, Inc. submitted the lowest bid for the online voting and counting system (OVCS) that will be used for overseas voting in the upcoming 2025 midterm polls.

The OVCS, as per the Comelec, refers to the online system that will facilitate the internet-voting of Filipinos from their respective gadgets.

According to the Comelec, the SMS Global-Sequent joint venture submitted a PHP112-million bid for the procurement of the OVCS —far lower than the poll body’s PHP465-million budget.

Given the complex technical specifications for the OVCS and the strict security requirement to protect and uphold the integrity of the elections, several questions come into mind when it comes to the huge discrepancy between the bid amount vis-à-vis the Comelec budget.

After all, the poll body has assured the public that it came up with the PHP465-million budget following extensive and comprehensive research. This means that the amount should have accounted for all the considerations for a reliable and secure OVCS.

Beyond the basic hardware and software requirements for the OVCS, the budget should cover costs for complete cybersecurity measures, availability of 24/7 technical support in all countries where online elections will be held, backup servers, and cloud computing, among others.

So how would the PHP112-million bid of SMS Global and Sequent —which if I may emphasize is less than a quarter of the proposed Comelec budget— cover such a complex and technical requirement for an OVCS?

One can’t help but think that the bid amount is too much of a lowball given what is at stake —the integrity of our elections. The proposed amount of SMS Global and Sequent also gives rise to questions on the reliability and security of the OVCS that they can provide.

Aside from budget concerns, it was also learned that during the public demonstrations, the SMS Global-Sequent joint venture failed to present several features for the OVCS as required by Comelec in its terms of reference (TOR).

In the same demonstration, SMS Global-Sequent failed to use the configuration data provided by Comelec to vendors which resulted in mismatched information on election return printouts and certificate of vote. The demonstrations can be viewed on Comelec’s Facebook page.

This early on, one cannot help but have doubts that the joint venture can mount a smooth and successful online voting.

While the Comelec has yet to award the contract for the procurement of the OVCS to the SMS Global-Sequent joint venture, the poll body should seriously consider concerns about the bidder’s eligibility to provide a reliable and secure OVCS with only barely a year left before the midterm elections. SMS Global and Sequent should be able to satisfy all the requirements of Comelec under its TOR for it to be awarded the contract.

The 2025 midterm elections are too important to serve as a testing ground for tech companies that have yet to prove their capability, much less their expertise, in providing such a complex system.

Elections are a hallmark of democracy, and we Filipinos deserve nothing less than the most capable and competent service provider.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the foregoing article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Philippine News Agency (PNA) or any other office under the Presidential Communications Office.

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About the Columnist

Image of Joe Zaldarriaga

Joe Zaldarriaga is a veteran, award-winning communicator immersed in public service within and beyond the energy sector. He has more than 30 years of experience serving the country’s biggest electric distribution utility and is involved in a number of public service functions, as member of various committees on public safety, power supply security and electrification. Concurrently, he is a prominent figure in the Philippine communications industry, as Chairman and Past President of the US-based International Association of Business Communicators Philippines (IABC PH). He is also an awardee of the University of Manila’s Medallion of Honor (Dr. Mariano V. delos Santos Memorial) and a Scroll of Commendation, a testament to his celebrated years in public service exemplified by outstanding communications.

Joe also shares his opinion and outlook on relevant national and consumer issues as a columnist in several prominent publications and is now venturing into new media via hosting a new vlog called Cup of Joe. Previously, Joe was a reporter and desk editor of a Broadcasting Company and the former auditor of the Defense Press Corps of the Philippines. A true green Lasalian, he finished with a degree in Asian Studies specializing in the Japan Studies program at De La Salle University, Manila, where he also spent his entire education.