The Manila Times - Fixing what isn’t broken

17 July 2019

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

WHY fix something if it ain’t broke?

To many critics, the automated election system (AES) that we have been using since the 2010 national and local elections is broken and needs to be replaced.

At the launch of the search for an alternative AES, Undersecretary Eli Rio said that the AES is not broken that it needs to be fixed. But he said, “the system needs to be more transparent x x x in the actual counting and appreciation of votes in the precincts.”

What ails the system is that the vote counting machine (VCM) lacks the quality of any democratic electoral exercise: transparency. It is not transparent because not a single voter sees what happens to his ballot from the time it is inserted into the VCM to the time the VCM prints the voter verifiable paper audit trail, otherwise known as the “resibo.” It is not transparent because no one sees what happens to the ballots from the time the board of election inspectors (BEI), now called the electoral board, initiates the counting of votes until the time the first copy of the election returns is printed.

In the old manual system of vote counting the interested parties — the voters, the watchers, and other stakeholders — are able to actively participate beyond the voting period because counting is done openly.

At counting time, the BEI goes through the motions of emptying the ballot box of all ballots and shows to the interested parties that no ballot is left inside the ballot box. With the VCM, the emptying of the ballot box, which is under the VCM, and which is a physical exercise, is no longer done. A step in the start-up phase of the VCM involves the printing of the “zero count,” that is, an election return is printed showing zero votes for all the candidates. This is to prove that the count is “empty” — but is it?

The BEI divides the ballots into piles is the next step in the manual process. The VCM has done away with this process.

To initiate the vote counting phase, the members of the BEI go to their respective positions — one to read the names off the ballot, another to record votes on the tally sheet, and the third member to record votes on the tally board. In contrast, to initiate the vote counting process with the VCM, the BEI members simply enter their respective passwords into the VCM and the vote counting process is done in seconds.

While the BEI chairman scrutinizes the ballot and reads the names of the candidates for each position in the manual system, the ballot is in full view of the interested parties. With the VCM each ballot is no longer shown to the watchers.

In the manual system, if the watchers find errors in the reading of a name on the ballot, they immediately raise the matter to the BEI chairman. This participatory process has been lost in the VCM. The VCM has deprived the interested parties of the right to actively participate in the appreciation of the ballot since the process is no longer public.

The whole process of vote counting is done in total secrecy, inside the black box. This has to be fixed.

And so, following the launch for the search for an alternative AES, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) invited local groups to present their respective concepts of a system for voting and vote counting. It also invited vendors to showcase their election systems. For this, an AES Technology Fair was organized and hosted by the DICT. The DICT itself presented what it sees as an alternative to the VCM. And so did the proponents of Better Open Source Election System (Boses) and Alternative Election System with Enhanced Transparency and Accuracy (AES-ETA). The Commission on Elections (Comelec), on the other hand, presented its VCM-based transparency enhancements, including using the “resibo” to do a parallel count of the votes. There were eight other groups or vendors, local and international, who showcased their voting systems.

Interestingly, all presenters in the morning session focused on transparency, in line with the theme of the AES Technology Fair — “One Citizen. One Vote. One Count.”

The next question perhaps is, how do we assess the best alternative voting system? The next tasks are 1) to develop a set of specifications of what we want in a voting system; and 2) a set of metrics that can be used to assess each proponent’s or vendor’s voting system.

Republic Act 9369 which amended RA 8436, or the AES Law, needs to be amended. The law allowed the Comelec to use an automated election system for the conduct of our elections. But the law allows only the use of two technologies — the direct recording electronic, a touch screen technology-based system, or the optical mark reader (OMR) technology-based system. This has to change. Any law on the use of automated systems must be technology-neutral.

The law also effectively bars Philippine-developed automated election systems because the law requires that any system that will be used for our national and local elections must have been used in prior election exercises. This condition must be removed.

Thirty-four months to go before May 9, 2022. So much to fix, both technical and legal. We should all move fast.