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The Manila Times - In pursuit of transparency in the vote counting

News & Interviews
4 March 2020

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

CALLS for manual elections were once again highlighted just last week, although at a smaller election event.

Controversies arose as the Philippine Councilors’ League tried to use an automated election system for the election of its officers. Marred by glitches, questions of integrity of the system and allegations of pre-loaded results, a failure of elections was declared.

Unheeded were calls for the conduct of manual elections. Elections were put off for another date.

Going back to manual elections is like swimming against the tide. Some quarters say voters have gotten used to the process after four automated election exercises — there was less pressure on the teachers who served in the Election Board, formerly referred to as Board of Election Inspectors, because the machines did the counting of the votes; results of the voting was generated with speed; and there was no need to physically transport election paraphernalia to the canvassing and consolidation center under heavy guard of watchers and observers.

All these assertions are true, but one thing is clearly evident: the use of the vote counting machines deprived the voters, watchers and observers of seeing how the votes were recorded and counted at the precinct level. And only a handful understands how the machines were programmed to process the votes.

Republic Act (RA) 8436, or the “Automated Election Law,” as amended by RA 9369, provides, among others, that the system used must ensure that the process shall be transparent and credible.

One of the controversies that was highlighted in the election protest lodged with the Presidential Electoral Tribunal is the issue of vote mark threshold — whether it was 50 percent or 25 percent.

What it is about is easily lost on the ordinary voter, the man on the street. Even if it is explained that the assessment of the vote marks involved counting the pixels in a vote mark or the shade in the oval and comparing the pixels counted against the expected number of pixels within the oval, questions like “what is a pixel?” would inevitably be raised.

And, even if it was explained that the vote mark is composed of dots, the more inquisitive mind would ask what was the size of the dot is and how was it measured and counted.

It is a technical matter that only a technically skilled and knowledgeable person would understand.

If the processes were not transparent, hidden within a black box that simply spouts the results, how would one assess the credibility of the results?

Past national and local elections, where the automated election system was used, were marred by glitches and problems. The 2019 elections, for one, was attended by a seven-hour data outage, failed voter registration verification machines, voting machines that malfunctioned and failed secure digital cards — all unexplained to this day.

The seven-hour data outage surely generated fear, uncertainty and doubt in various quarters. Fear that the election results were being tampered with at that time of the outage. Voters were uncertain what the results would be. And many doubted the credibility of the election results.

The foregoing issues alone violate the requirement that the process be transparent and credible.

Should we go back to manual voting and manual counting of votes?

The Batas Pambansa (BP) 881, or the Omnibus Election Code, prescribes the manner of voting and counting of the votes. The law provides a set of rules on how a ballot is to be appreciated by the Election Board.

The whole process is observable. And, even if the representatives of contending parties debated each handwritten name on a ballot under consideration, eventually the matter is resolved if everybody adhered to the rules of appreciation of the ballot.

How can technology be used to somehow automate the process?

BP 881 prescribes how the vote recording and counting are to be done, even how the room is to be arranged, and how the watchers and observers are to be positioned relative to the location of the Election Board, affording watchers and observers a view of a ballot under consideration. It was tough considering the number of watchers and observers but it was done and it was done successfully, despite controversies, in the years prior to the automation of the elections.

Technology can be used in this process. A computer with an LCD projector may be used to project the ballot under consideration on a wall of the voting precinct or a screen for everyone to see — even the watchers and voters who are peering through the windows.

BP 881 also prescribes the manner of recording the votes on a tally sheet and on the tally board. This, too, can be replaced by the same computer that hosts the electronic equivalent of the tally board and tally sheet, and displayed via an LCD projector. The recording of votes will be in full view of watchers, observers and voters.

Counting of votes, aided with the use of a computer, will progress as the votes are being recorded.

Of course, the electronic equivalent of the tally board/sheet will have to be programmed with security in mind. The security features will ensure that the recorded votes, once deemed final by the Election Board, may not be tampered with.

Manual counting of votes is the most transparent process that we should all pursue.