The Manila Times - Comelec’s bad choice of an election system

19 June 2019

By Gus Lagman | The Manila Times

THE initial impression of wonderment – even adulation – over the Smartmatic election system in 2010 is fading very fast. Not only is the credibility of the results produced by the system weakening, the suspicion of some groups, particularly, the IT community, that the system may have been used to fraudulently manipulate the results, is growing stronger.

Even President Duterte recently weighed in when he said that the Comelec should not use the Smartmatic election system again, that it should instead look for a fraud-free system — or one that’s close to it. The statement presumes, quite correctly, that the Smartmatic system is vulnerable to fraud. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find one that’s completely fraud-free, because there’s no such thing — not yet anyway — as a perfect automated election system.

However, the closest to it, to this day, is still one which, after the secret voting, counts, transmits, and canvasses the votes under the watchful eye of the voters. In other words, transparency is key to the ideal process.

Make any of those three steps in the process secret — that is, the counting, the transmission, and/or the canvassing — and transparency would be lost. Consequently, the credibility of the results would become questionable.

This is the reason why, since the beginning — even before the first automated Philippine elections in 2010 — I have been vehemently against the use of electronic voting and counting machines. Aside from the billions of pesos that would be wasted (and that could possibly line the pockets of some corrupt people in government), overall, credibility of the elections would suffer.

Of course, that was not obvious to the public when it was first introduced. The Comelec, the machine/service provider, and even some congressmen — some of them somehow presenting themselves as systems experts — made sure that the voters would accept it by praising the Smartmatic system to high heavens.

Transparency in elections is of utmost importance. Hide any step from the voters — except the voting, of course, which should remain secret — and it can raise questions regarding the results. And that’s exactly what automating precinct-counting would do to the final outcome. It is not unlike dropping our ballots into a locked room where only Smartmatic and the Comelec could enter, and which, only they could witness the vote-counting. (A simple question to the voters: Did any of you observe how your votes were counted?)

But the Comelec insisted, and continues to insist, on employing those expensive, non-transparent, voting machines in Philippine elections, putting into question its real motivation in maintaining that position. Worse, during the chairmanship (in an acting capacity) of former Commissioner Christian Robert Lim, the commission decided to purchase those machines! That occurred in December 2017 — just two months before Lim’s retirement. Prudence thrown out the window, makes the act even more suspicious.

Many countries around the world have discarded the use of automated vote-counting precisely because of the consequent loss of transparency. And here we are, supposedly a mature democracy with an experienced election administrator (read as Comelec), continuing its use.

The Comelec argues that since our elections have been automated, the results have come out faster, which of course is always a good thing; and that the results have proven to be accurate, anyway.

The commission, however, ignores one very important issue in any election, and that is, that the process must also be transparent to the voters. It probably believes that speed is the main thing in a good election system. Actually, it is only one — and the least important — among the characteristics of a good election system.

Accuracy is foremost, of course, and this feature results in the credibility of the outcome. Transparency is a close second; speed a far third. Manual precinct-counting, takes less than a day (usually, and in most precincts, this is completed by the following morning). There is truly no compelling reason to make that any shorter.

What delayed the results during pre-automation elections, were the transmission and canvassing processes. Focus of improvement efforts should have been on these steps. But no, the Comelec instead focused on the step that only takes a few hours to accomplish.

As a consequence of that choice, the equipment that the agency acquired had to be the kind that could only be used specifically for elections, and for no other purpose. Automation of the transmission and canvassing would only have needed ordinary PCs, laptops, and PC servers which, after each election, could be passed on to other government departments, to be used for many other purposes, including education.

It’s a pity that the Comelec has been so dead set in taking their present weak approach to the automation of our elections. It definitely is not the most effective use of computers, as it misses out on the advantageous features of mechanization.