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The Manila Times - Automated election cheating

News & Interviews
4 November 2018

By Rolly G. Reyes | The Manila Times

Modern technological wonders have swallowed citizen Juan in every corner of this Pacific pearl we call “Las Islas Filipinas.” Smitten by the digitalization of everything we use has drowned our senses in the enchanting global battle cry we call “modernization.”

Flashback: In 1997, Republic Act 8436 was passed into law, which authorized the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to implement an automated election system in the May 1998 polls.

Fine. We boasted that we, a third world country, embraced the future and was at par with our more progressive neighbors in the upper echelon of progress.

I now dare say “not fine.” We grabbed the moment without nullifying our fear of dangers, temptations, risks and possible distrust of the results.

We all believed that electronic voting would be the future and that there was no turning back. Until we realized the merits of manual or paper voting. The garbage can is always open for any trash we deem as garbage, and we were quite hasty to dispose without due diligence.

Some will say that we should be happy in making the first steps, but like a kid inching to balance his body to that upright position, we did not provide the strength to help him prepare for the situation.

We now ask what should have been asked before. Did the agencies involved follow the law to the letter? A battleground was ensued after the 2011 elections. Logically, no battleground would commence if everything went smoothly as practiced.

The problem started when computer experts were concerned about the electronic voting machines. I am not talking about here but in other parts of the globe.

I vividly remember a computer science professor at Princeton who became an expert witness in a famous lawsuit versus some New Jersey officials in 2004. He already mentioned software as the weakest point in subscribing to automated polls.

Software? Too late to blame, but trust springs eternal as we are using the same tandem in the coming mid-term election. SmartMatic seems to be a heavy hitter every time.

We witnessed the handshakes between the system provider and our gracious Comelec several times. The tandem is almost descriptive of a famous monster called “The Incredible Hulk,” who can be adorable like an angel and a whacker at the same time.

When we talk about vulnerability, it is not futile to argue that unlike the standard pen and paper, there is really nothing to physically connect the machine transmission of the ballots to the National Canvassers. The lord of the process is a “software” designed by “someone” or a group of programmers.

Yes, Juans and Juanas, the possibility of hacking is as wide open as the Atlantic or the Pacific. The software can be hypnotized to make alterations. One number added or subtracted, deliberately (or by accident) can spell a big difference. The additional insult is that there is no reliable way to trace the goof.

One expert said: “I strongly recommend that if electronic machines are to be used, they should be equipped with equipment to print a voter-verified paper ballot.”

Hacking the votes due to unsecured computers is now a regular dish in automated polls around the world. Russian or Chinese computer interference still hugs the headlines like a hovering overweight nimbus cloud.

We all know about the allegations that Russian spy agencies tried to hack into election-related systems in 2016, including voter registration databases, in 21 US states. True or not, the possibility that interventions can happen cannot be avoided when we discuss cybersecurity.

Scary is how some recent reports show that some voting machines can connect to the internet, and some of them come with pre-installed remote access software, which makes them more vulnerable to hacks from a distance.

Expert computer hackers could also infiltrate the computers that tabulate results. I believe that a paper record of every vote should be in place for cross-checking of the numbers’ validity to make sure things are consistent.

Comelec should resort to risk-limiting safeguards to detect fraud. Yes, a computer can tell lies, too. We have to make sure that the voting machines are not lying to us about what’s on paper.

Some US states are now considering moving from machines to paper ballots that voters mark with a pen. Other states are planning to stick with the machines but buy new ones that create a printed paper record of each voter’s ballot.

We have to have the ability to recover from anything questionable. whether it’s a programming error or a mistake, or hacking.

Example: South Carolina’s Election Commission has requested $60 million from its legislature to fund an update.

Even before concerns about election interference were headline news, states were moving away from paperless systems. That’s because arguments against paperless voting by computer experts are having an impact that cannot be ignored.

We are not alone. Several countries also made the wrong call about the reliability of an electronic machine. Variants are now being looked upon to guarantee a fool proof result.

To operate effectively, public officials should consider the public’s desires and concerns. While we are now confronted always with fake news, let us be united in our war against fake election results. A true democratic electoral system should be based on trust. Let us help each other to make it work.

A weekend musing:

Nothing like spending a cool sunny November morning savoring the polite but lustful baton of Henry Mancini…insanely imagining a shower of colored confetti in that monochrome film “Casablanca” and its main theme “As Time Goes By.”

The keyboard betrays the painful emptiness of Bogart, the strings highlight the opulence of his longing emotion for Bergman. Is it the song? Is it the story? I can’t help but request my phonograph to read my vinyl record and say, “Play it again Sam.”
Good work, good deeds and good faith to all.