The Manila Times – Counting of votes should be done in public again

By Gus Lagman | The Manila Times

ARE we happy with the way the Comelec automated our election system? A survey some years back showed that some 70 percent of Filipinos were satisfied with the system. They generally said that it was quite easy to fill up the ballots and print out the results of the precinct-count.

Many other countries which automated their elections were also initially happy with it, too; however, almost all reverted to manual counting and abandoned its automation. Except for the canvassing or consolidation phase.

Why?

The reason seems to be universal — when vote counting is automated, transparency is lost!

Indeed, how can you trust an election system wherein you feed your ballot into the machine and at the end of the voting period, the result comes out without you witnessing the count? Much like watching a basketball game where scores are not shown until the end of the four quarters.

So, now we are forced to trust the “black box” that accepts our ballots and counts the votes that we marked. Who actually counts our votes? It’s the software that runs the black box. (Software is the set of instructions inside that black box that does the counting of the votes.) And who wrote that software? It’s Smartmatic, the provider of the black box and the software that runs it.

Clearly, it’s only this foreign-owned company that knows how our votes are being counted. The 60 million voters have effectively relegated the counting of the votes to a handful of foreigners. There’s got to be something very wrong with that.

Mistakes could have been committed, as have happened in some parts of the United States. Or, heaven forbid, the results could have been rigged! But the thing is, with the system that they used, we don’t know. We don’t know because the system is not transparent.

When our elections were still manual, precinct-counting would take, say, an average of 12 hours. Canvassing, on the other hand, would then take three to four weeks. Given these data, it’s easy to conclude that the phase that should be shortened is the canvassing, more than the precinct-counting.

In the 2010, 2013 and 2016 elections, Comelec automated both phases — precinct-counting and canvassing. The Comelec rented, and then later, bought vote-counting machines. The result? Transparency in vote-counting was lost, while it cost the country around P10 billion (P30 billion in the last three elections, more or less).

Had they left the precinct-counting alone, and only automated the electronic transmission and canvassing, it would probably have cost us a maximum of P4 billion. And because they would only use ordinary PCs, such PCs can be donated later to the Department of Education for use by the teachers and the students.

This kind of approach, if enhanced with additional features, could be the most suitable, most appropriate system for Philippine elections. There are, however, quite a few Comelec officials and politicians who have publicly expressed their distrust of manual counting at the precinct level. One politician even claimed that he had witnessed how he was being cheated during the manual counting in some precincts.

It is understandable that he does not realize, much less appreciate, the view that witnessing how he is being cheated is an advantage of manual counting because such would provide him with a basis for filing a protest.

On the other hand, when precinct-counting is automated, cheating can be hidden from the public eye and will only need one person, or a few technical people, to execute. And this result-manipulation can be carried through, from the precinct level, to the municipality, provincial and national levels. The losing candidate will have no basis for filing a protest. Certainly, a major disadvantage.

After each of the past automated elections, stories have been floating around about strong candidates who lost. All they could mutter was, “What happened?” Because they did not witness the cheating, if indeed they were cheated, there was nothing they could use as basis for a protest.

A good election system, and this is becoming the worldwide standard, must have transparency in precinct-counting, especially because the results of this step provide the control counts that are used in the remaining steps of the process.

If a national candidate or his political party wants to rig the results of manual elections, he or the party has to bribe a lot of teachers and canvassers. Tough job! In automated elections, he only needs to control the work of a handful of technical people — the technical people who wrote the software. Not all that difficult.

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