The Manila Times : Recommendations to improve AES

23 June 2021

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

THE country will once again use Smartmatic's election technology in the May 9, 2022 national and local elections despite issues and problems encountered in the last four national and local elections starting in 2010.

Among the issues in 2010 were:

– During the conduct of the final testing and sealing of the vote-counting machine, then called precinct count optical scan (PCOS) in the 2010 and 2013 elections, errors in the counting of votes were detected. It turned out that the side of the ballot that had the local contests was redesigned from single spaced lines to double spaced lines. The error caused the recall of all compact flash cards that contained the voting precinct configuration files nationwide.

– Among the security features implemented on the ballot is the ultraviolet (UV) ink mark. However, on testing, the vote counting machine failed to detect the UV ink mark. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) resorted to disabling the UV ink mark detection feature and was forced to buy handheld UV ink mark readers for use by the board of election inspectors. At the post-election hearing of the committee on suffrage and electoral reforms of the House of Representatives it was explained that as ballot printing was quickly approaching the deadline, the ballots needed to be printed at a higher speed resulting in the printing of the UV security feature at lower ink density causing the PCOS UV ink detection to fail.

– Among the minimum system capabilities required by law is the provision for voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) and a system of verification for the voter to find out whether or not the machine registered his choice. Neither of these required features was present in the PCOS.

– Digital signatures of the members of the board of election inspectors were not implemented. Instead, the Comelec opted to implement machine digital signatures.

In 2013, during which the PCOS was reused, the issues were:

– The VVPAT and the digital signatures of the members of the board of election inspectors and the Board of Canvassers were still not provided in the machines.

– The number of untransmitted election returns (ER) increased from about 8,000 in 2010 to about 18,000 in 2013.

– The 60-30-10 vote distribution pattern in the senatorial contest. At canvassing and consolidation, analysis showed that 60 percent of the votes went to administration candidates, 30 percent to the opposition candidates and 10 percent to other parties and independent candidates.

– Digital lines were found on ballot images in eleven out of 234 PCOS machines that were covered by the random manual audit (RMA) potentially impacting some 2,199,600 ballots.

In 2016, the PCOS was replaced with the vote counting machine (VCM) and among the issues were:

– The "ñ" controversy. Observers at the transparency server operations saw that the names of candidates with the Spanish letter "ñ" were not being displayed properly. Hearing of the problem, Smartmatic programmer Marlon Garcia, without first seeking proper authorization, went ahead to apply corrections. Garcia's action resulted in the delivery of election results through the transparency server that had conflicting hash codes. Consistent hash codes provide an indication that the ERs were free from tampering and its integrity intact. The unauthorized action led some parties to allege vote manipulation.

– Allegations of early transmission of ERs and transmission from rogue machines.

In 2019, the VCM was reused. Conveyance of ERs to election monitoring organizations, political parties, and media was halted within the first half hour of ERs transmission from the transparency server. The problem was dubbed the "7-hour glitch." Vote manipulation was raised anew. Doubts on the credibility of the election results was further amplified when none of the eight opposition party candidates made it to the Senate. While efforts to show that none of the ERs was lost and integrity preserved, the cause of the glitch has never been completely explained.

The ERs received by different groups through the transparency server were not in the format generated by the vote counting machines. These were converted from election markup language format in 2010 and 2013 and Google protocol buffer format to comma separated values format.

Operations of what critics referred to as queue servers and secret servers were finally disclosed by the Comelec as "transmission router" in 2019 but its location was never disclosed, remaining behind a veil of secrecy.

Despite implementation of transparency measures like the local source code review and the high accuracy rates of the vote count determined in the conduct of the RMA, the issues and problems encountered and lack of transparency of the AES operations continue to undermine the credibility of election results.

Desiring to see an improved automated elections system (AES), the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) proposes that:

  1. The software used for the AES be covered by general purpose license or open-source election technology public license.
  2. The use of election markup language in formatting data to be transmitted to and across the AES components.
  3. The proper implementation of digital signing by members of the electoral boards and the boards of canvassers.
  4. The ballot be redesigned by assigning unique numbers to each candidate in the different contests and arranging their names numerically rather than alphabetically.
  5. The data printed on the VVPAT and the ERs be encoded in quick response (QR) codes to be printed in the VVPAT and ERs, respectively.

Due to limitations of space, I will be discussing each of these recommendations in succeeding articles.