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The Manila Times - How automation of vote counting has undermined transparency

News & Interviews
30 January 2019

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

THE smartphone has truly become a ubiquitous device that many aspire to own. Couple this with internet technologies that brought a revolution and evolution of applications that enable connectivity and the delivery of services and information. In the hands of users is a computer thousands of times more powerful than computers of half a century ago. Yet, many users of these technologies are unaware how these devices and technologies work. Well, there may not be a need to know because users can stay connected and informed, allowing them to interact with friends and relatives, react to information they receive, avail of certain services, and even purchase products online. Such are the wonders of technology.

But technology has a downside. There has been an increase of cases of fraud and scams, and even identity theft. Despite this, people continue to use these technologies, oblivious to the dangers, until they get hit.

In a recently overheard discussion, a group was discussing the dangers that today’s technologies bring. The discussion quickly turned to the upcoming midterm elections. One expressed his desire for a change in leadership in the city where he resides. He is concerned that the current leader will make it in the coming elections because of the elected official’s immense popularity and influence. The fear is not exactly technology-based until one person in the group expressed doubts about the results of past elections, further expressing the fear that the devices used can be rigged to favor certain candidates.

Is the fear unfounded or is it real?

When the automated election system was used for the first time on a nationwide scale, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) exerted a lot of effort to educate the voting public on how the voters can exercise their right to vote with the use of the technology. This effort was complemented by various groups that delivered voter education programs focusing on the nuances of voting using the pre-printed ballots.
Voter education programs continued to be delivered in subsequent automated elections but the “bilog na hugis itlog” promotional cum educational materials took a back seat and disappeared altogether.

The focus was on the use of the technology for voting. Voter education programs did not include information on how the voter’s ballot is processed by the vote counting machine. The challenge was how to explain to the ordinary voter how the marks on the ballots are detected, how said marks are made up of picture elements or pixels, how the pixels are counted to determine which mark passed as a valid vote mark or not, how a valid vote mark is credited as a vote for a candidate, how the votes are counted, how the election returns are generated, and how the electronic version of the election returns is transmitted to the canvassing server at the city or municipality, and, oh yes, what transmission is and how it is carried out and what a server is.

The voting process ended at the point when the voter feeds his ballot into the voting machine.

There was a change in the process in the 2016 elections when the Supreme Court mandated that the Comelec implement the voter verifiable paper audit trail, or VVPAT, popularly referred to as the “resibo,” which provided a list of selections made by the voter for the different contests. The voter had the opportunity to check if the resibo reflected his choices. The downside, however, was, if the resibo did not reflect the voter’s choices there was no recourse. The ballot was already in the ballot box and no replacement ballot is provided.

Despite the change, allegations of cheating and rigging arose. Allegations of early transmissions from certain jurisdictions, queries to unknown servers, and the use of “queue servers,” among others, were raised.

Perhaps the lack of information on how the system works, how the system is set up, and the limited information gathered gave rise to the allegations.

Indeed, smartphones and the automated election system are black boxes that accept inputs and generate outputs. What happens in between is unknown to the user.

In the case of the vote counting machines, what happens to the ballot after it is fed into the machine is unknown to immensely many voters.

An example given by a colleague is a basketball game. During the game, players shoot the ball into the basket but there is no scoreboard. The watchers do not see how the scores are credited. At the end of the game, the winner is announced.

The use of technology for the elections has its merits. The counting of votes and the consolidation of votes from the precincts to city/municipal level, on to the legislative districts and provincial levels, and finally at the national level were speedily done and delivered. But technology is supposed to support transparency, not undermine it. Transparency has been sacrificed for speed and efficiency.

The automation of our elections included the automation of vote counting. Vote counting is indeed fast but transparency has taken a back seat. There may still be secrecy of voting but the principle of public counting of votes is gone. The voter has been deprived of his right to know if his vote had been counted and if it was counted properly.

Was it really necessary to automate the vote counting?