The Manila Times - Hybrid election system heats up

18 September 2019

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

SEVERAL proposed bills on the use of the hybrid election system have been filed in both houses of Congress. The proposed bills support the return to manual voting, that is, going back to handwritten ballots and manual counting of votes. Transmission of election returns and the consolidation and canvassing of vote counts, however, will be done electronically.

There are parties who oppose the move to go back to manual vote counting, saying that it signals the return to long drawn-out counting of votes. Historical data in the conduct of manual elections shows that vote counting takes about five to 12 hours to complete, while the automated vote counting is completed mere minutes from the close of voting.

The tallying of votes is a tedious process if done manually, while the Precinct Count Optical Scan/vote counting machine (PCOS/VCM) automatically maintains a record of vote tallies.

And, with the manual vote counting, members of the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) are exposed to pressure exerted by politicians or representatives, while with the automated vote counting the BEI members can always point to the machine used, thus relieving them of the pressure.

Time to transport manually prepared election returns vary, given that some have to be transported across mountains or over inter-island waters. By contrast, the electronic transmission of vote counts from voting precincts is fast; in fact, records show that 91 percent of expected election returns were already received by servers within seven hours from close of voting in the 2019 national and local elections. But, of course, there are incidents of electronic transmission failure.

Historical records also show that in the manual system, consolidation and canvassing of vote results up to the national level take between 30 to 40 days, while the automated election system consolidation and canvassing of votes up to the national level takes about 19 to 30 days to complete.

The case against the PCOS/VCM stems from the fact that the machines are totally opaque, black boxes that simply receive inputs from ballots, which are scanned, executes the non-transparent process of finding and assessing marks on the ballot, does vote counting, and generates outputs in the form of election returns. By contrast, the process of vote counting in the manual system is very transparent and the process of tallying of votes is participated in by independent watchers and watchers of political parties. Delivery of election results is done under close observation by the same watchers.

The case against the automated election system also stems from allegations of irregularities. Transmissions before election day and pre-shading or post-voting mass shading of ballots are among the reports that have raised concern among election observers and interested parties.

In 2019, for instance, after the supposed close of voting, a video of a group of people shading ballots circulated on Twitter and Facebook. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) was quick to condemn the video and said that it would investigate the matter. There have been no reports of any such investigation having been conducted.

In 2016, the log of events in a VCM used in Tugaya, Lanao del Sur shows that there were 256 ballots cast shortly before the close of voting, which was logged by the VCM at about two hours after the official close of the polls. There was no transmission of results. The VCM log also shows that the vote counter was reset to zero about 25 hours after the recorded close of polls the previous day. The VCM log further shows that about six hours after the re-zeroing, 329 ballots had been cast. This was followed by vote counting and the electronic transmission of the election returns. The VCM log shows a red flag incident that tends to support allegations of post-voting mass shading of ballots. A red flag incident is not conclusive but should, however, lead to an investigation.

With the use of PCOS/VCMs, election protesters do not know how they were cheated. They don’t know what evidence they need to collect except the ballot. Incidentally, rules used for the resolution of election disputes resulting from the use of the automated election system rely solely on the manual recount of votes using the paper ballots. But there is no way for humans to determine if a mark is beyond the defined threshold size for it to be considered a valid vote mark.

The proposed bills show how the counting of votes at the precinct level will be done. While a BEI member calls out the names written on the ballot per contest, another member will manually record the count on a multiple copy tally sheet and a third member or an independent person using a laptop or desktop computer will record the votes in a spreadsheet-like form, which takes the place on the tally board posted in all four walls of the voting precinct, and which will be displayed via an LCD projector for everyone to see.

To ensure transparency of the reading of the ballot, watchers will be allowed to station themselves behind the BEI member designated to read the names off the ballot for them to closely see the ballot. In the alternative, the ballot can also be displayed via the LCD projector for everyone to see.

Will we see the return of handwritten ballots and manual vote counting in the national and local elections in 2022?