The Manila Times : Increasing participation and leveling the playing field

News & Interviews
15 September 2021

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

THE National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) has come up with proposals that it sees will enhance the transparency of elections, encourage participation, and resolve issues observed in previously held elections using the automated election system. Two other measures are discussed in this installment: the use of QR codes and improving the ballot face design.

Proposal: QR codes on the election returns

Encoded in a Quick Response, or QR code, is data about something. Used with products, it may contain a product code. Used for digital payments, it may hold the coded identity of a merchant.

Quite a number of Filipinos have grown accustomed to QR codes, especially those who use digital payment apps and, lately, contact tracing apps or online registration for vaccination purposes.

Election data is no different. Election results can be encoded in QR codes.

For the upcoming 2022 national and local elections, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is on the road to implementing the use of QR codes for the voter verifiable paper audit trail, or VVPAT, which will essentially contain the names of candidates for each contest that a voter selects.

Namfrel proposes that data printed on election returns be encoded in QR codes, perhaps one each for the results of the vote count for national candidates, local candidates, party list, and clustered precinct statistics.

Namfrel sees QR codes on the election returns as a health and safety measure that may be adopted by the Comelec in the upcoming elections which will highly likely be held under pandemic conditions. One of the protocols being considered by the Comelec is limiting the number of watchers and observers within the clustered precinct during the counting of votes. This may result in lesser participation.

QR codes on the election return may lead to wider participation. Election results may be crowdsourced from watchers, observers and other election stakeholders since they will only need to scan the QR codes when the election return is posted outside the clustered precinct. The scanned election results data may then be transmitted to their respective organizations. They will, of course, be under the watchful eye of other watchers to ensure that they observe distancing measures. They need not stay longer than necessary.

The crowdsourced election returns may be compared with those transmitted to the transparency server and may be used by interested groups for their own canvassing and consolidation of election results.

Proposal: Ballot face design

There are two ways by which names of candidates appear in the ballot. For national and local candidates, they are printed in alphabetic order of the candidates' family names per contest. For party-list candidates, each candidate is randomly assigned a unique number and their names arranged numerically.

Studies show that candidates with names starting with the letter A enjoy an advantage over candidates with names starting with other letters of the alphabet because, when sorted alphabetically, names starting with the letter A would always land on the top spot on a pre-printed ballot.

Another issue the Namfrel proposal addresses is celebrity candidates using their pseudonyms rather than their real names giving them the advantage of popularity and name recall.

Creative individuals in the party-list groups know that names starting with 1, for instance, when sorted alphanumerically, will always land that name on the top of the list. A party-list candidate's name with a series of A's will also land them at the top when sorted alphabetically. The Comelec took away these advantages when it chose to assign each party-list candidate a unique number and arrange their names on the ballot following their assigned numbers.

Namfrel proposes a uniform way of listing the names of candidates in the national and local contests as well as in the party-list on the preprinted ballot by randomly assigning all candidates - national, local or party list - with unique numbers and arranging the list of candidates numerically.

Here's the twist: Namfrel proposes that the numbers be continuous instead of setting the assigned numbers to 1 in each contest as was done previously. That is, if there are eight candidates for president, a number within the range 1 to 8 will be randomly assigned to a candidate. If there are six candidates running for vice president, a number within the range of 9 to 14 will be randomly assigned to a candidate. If there are 60 candidates running for senator, a number within the range 15 to 74 will be randomly assigned. And so on.

Effectively, no two candidates across contests will have the same number. This may result in resolving the issue of undervotes observed in the 2010 and 2016 elections.

Using this scheme will level the playing field in terms of the printing of the names of the candidates on the ballot.

Assigning numbers will also help resolve the issue of nuisance candidates since everyone will try to popularize their assigned numbers during the campaign period.

The scheme will also help avoid early campaigning since candidates will be informed of their assigned numbers close to the start of the campaign period.

Three other proposals - the proposed shift to open source licensing, the use of election markup language in the conveyance of election results from the vote counting machine to all destination servers without conversion to another format, and the proper implementation of digital signatures - were discussed in two earlier installments of this series.