The Manila Times - Clamor for ‘secret voting, public counting’ growing

27 March 2019

By Gus Lagman | The Manila Times

DUE to the proximity of the May 2019 midterm elections, I have been interviewed, via phone patch, quite a few times in the last few weeks. The common question asked of me has been on the issue of the automated system that the Comelec intends to use.

To all, I have responded that yes, the Comelec plans to deploy the same system used in 2010, 2013 and 2016. That system is Smartmatic’s precinct count optical scan (PCOS), renamed vote counting machine (VCM) a few years ago. The renaming, some IT people say, was made because of the bad reputation that PCOS had earned for itself during the above-mentioned election years.

Regardless of that reputation, the commission bought, at a cost of billions of pesos, the more than 90,000 used PCOS units sometime in December 2017, shortly before the retirement of then Acting Comelec Chairman Bot Lim. To IT election advocates, that was such a horrible thing to do. This has now become one of the justifications being used for not junking the Smartmatic system — Comelec already owns the machines! Sayang naman, nand’yan na ‘yan. I know, we’ve heard this line before, from government officials who have committed acts against public interest.

But what is it that’s so wrong with PCOS? The first, is a very basic issue: vote-counting should not be automated. Code Red, a book published in the United States, says, “Automated vote-counting is inherently insane!” Vote-counting should be witnessed and understood by the voters. Automating it is very much like counting the votes behind a secret door. Would you trust the announced results if the counting were done in this manner?

The second is that it is much easier to execute cheating in automated elections, especially when the “cheater” is an insider. One only needs to alter the software in order to rig the results. One technical person could do it, and nobody would be the wiser. And this can be done even without the knowledge of the election administrator, meaning, the Comelec.

After the 2010 elections, there were stories that results-rigging was being offered to some local candidates. One candidate said that he lost by exactly the same percentage as was the win offered to him before the elections, and which he rejected, but which, apparently, his opponent accepted.

Understandably, the clamor for the shift back to manual vote-counting is growing. A process that starts with manual counting, then followed by automated canvassing is what voters — in the know — prefer. They refer to this simple, but transparent, process as the “hybrid” system.

The Philippines is not the only country that would experience automating its elections and then discovering that precinct-counting, to be transparent, must be manually done. Following are examples picked up from the internet of countries which have reverted to manual from automated election systems.

According to the Hill website, a good number of US states abandoned electronic voting machines, ensuring that most voters cast their ballots by hand on Election Day.

In Germany, political scientist Joachim Wiesner and his son, physicist Ulrich Wiesner, complained that push-button voting was not transparent because the voter could not see what actually happened to his vote inside the computer and was required to place his “blind faith” in the technology. In addition, the two plaintiffs argued that the results were open to manipulation. The German Supreme Court eventually ruled the voting machines unconstitutional.

Ireland bought voting machines from the Dutch company Nedap for about €40 million. The machines were used on a “pilot” basis in three constituencies for the 2002 Irish general election and a referendum on the Treaty of Nice. On April 23, 2009, the Minister for the Environment John Gormley announced that the electronic voting system was to be scrapped by an as yet undetermined method, due to cost and the public’s dissatisfaction with the current system.

In the Netherlands, in 2008, e-voting was suspended after 20 years of using it when activists showed that the system could, under certain circumstances, endanger the secrecy of the vote. An official commission found that the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, which was responsible for organizing elections, was lacking in in-house expertise, causing too much dependence on vendors and certification agencies. Voters had to switch back to pen and paper.

To the Comelec, I say: “Let’s bring back transparency in our elections; let’s count the vote manually at the precincts…witnessed by the voters who cast those ballots!”