Is confidentiality of overseas electors ballots at risk when voting is done by post?
Some observers claim it is. They point out that because the return ballot envelope which is part of the electoral mail sent by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) requires the voter-sender to write, and sign, his/her name on the outside of the envelope [see photo], confidentiality may be breached as the ballot can be identified as that of the voter-sender.
In our view, the secrecy of the ballot being compromised or breached depends on the control procedures to be applied from the time the return ballot envelopes are received up to when the envelopes are opened for counting of votes.
Return ballot envelopes used for overseas voting are sent to a “Special Ballot and Reception Group” formed from among local Consular officers by the Department of Foreign Affairs in partnership with the Comelec.
Judging from the electoral package including the guidelines sent by the Comelec to registered overseas voters and from our experience as an election observer in the past, our view is that the secrecy of the ballot is not compromised as feared, notwithstanding the name of the voter-sender written on the outside of the envelope.
The way that the ballot can be identified to the voter is if the Consulate Comelec officers, when opening the ballot envelopes, remove the ballot from the envelope, unfold it, take note of the names of the candidates on the ballot, and take note of the name of voter-sender.
As there are election watchers present during the ballot-opening and counting proceeding, I doubt very much if the Consulate-Comelec officers would even attempt.
What if the return envelopes and ballots are opened prior to the official count?
No question, that is an electoral offence which carries a penalty under the law.
If that happens, the ballot having been “tampered” can be detected. The seal of the Comelec-issued box would have been broken and/or the sticker label which seals the return envelope would have been broken too. On election night, the big return envelope box is inspected – again in the presence of election watchers – that the Comelec seal remains unbroken.
This is not saying that there are no problems in the upcoming May 9 elections with regard to the election results.
In our mind, the more worrying aspect of the election is the assurance, or the lack of it, on the completeness, accuracy and integrity of the automated electoral system (AES). As in the 2010 national elections when the AES was first implemented, the integrity of the system is under question. And this includes overseas voters polls where AES machines will be deployed.
NOTE: Interestingly, postal voting is also a common practice in Australia. To secure secrecy, it is a prescribed procedure at the Australian Electoral Commission that the return envelopes are opened face down and the ballot papers removed, without being unfolded, and placed in a ballot box. Additionally, there are also election watchers (“scrutineers”) when the envelopes are opened, ballot papers removed and votes counted.