The Manila Times - The quest for the return of transparency in our election processes

5 August 2020

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

AUTOMATION has taken over routine and repetitive tasks, and it can handle volumes with such efficiency, speed and accuracy.

In the context of our elections, the automated election system, or AES, was adopted for the counting of votes from millions of ballots cast to be done fast and to ensure the accuracy of the results.

Prior to the automation of our elections, the process of counting took some five to 24 hours to complete, while canvassing and consolidation of votes took some 30 to 40 days. Counting of votes was very transparent. While election workers exerted much effort to complete the process, each ballot was scrutinized by watchers and lawyers of candidates and political parties. The vote results documents were also scrutinized down to every detail at each level of canvassing and consolidation.

With the automation of our elections, the counting of votes and consolidation of results were done in secret. The transparency of the process was lost. Transparency measures were put in place instead.

A review of the source code of the programs was undertaken as a transparency measure. It revealed how things were done inside the machine, by the machine, things like checking if there was a vote mark at a target location on the ballot or not. If there was a vote mark, measuring its size. If the size of the vote mark met a certain threshold, recording it as a vote. Then, at the end of the day, counting the votes. But source code review can only be done by specially trained program developers. It requires specialized skills and knowledge not only of election rules but also of the technology used.

The preparation of the machines used was also opened for observation but was limited to accredited watchers. Observation of machines going through the process of hardware accuracy tests and logic and accuracy tests also required special technical knowledge and skills and needed to be done up close.

At the point of voting, when a ballot was cast, a voter verifiable paper audit trail, or VVPAT, containing the voter’s selections was printed. But then, how can one really know whether the selections made by the voter were accurately recorded inside the machine and that they are the same as those printed in the VVPAT?

The random manual audit, or RMA, that was done after the close of polls is another transparency measure. The teams organized for the RMA went through special training.

The source code review, observation of the hardware accuracy test and logic and accuracy test, and the random manual audit cannot be done by an ordinary man on the street.

Simply put, transparency is not the same as transparency measures.

Some groups have been calling for a return of our elections to the manual voting and manual counting of the votes. In response, bills have been filed in Congress, one at the Senate and six at the House of Representatives, all calling for a hybrid election system which would allow for a) manual voting and manual vote counting at the precinct level; b) electronic transmission of election results; and c) automated canvassing and consolidation of votes.

The combination of the manual and automated processes means that there is a point in the whole process where the manual must transition into the automated to achieve the purposes of the hybrid election system.

The possible options are:
1. Complete the manual recording and counting of votes and manually prepare the election return. Then, convert the election return into electronic format with the use of a computer that is programmed to allow a human to encode the contents of the manually prepared election return.

2. Use a computer that is programmed in a way that enables recording of the votes by means of a human encoding each vote as it is being read, and then let the program count the votes and generate the electronic election return.

3. Use a computer programmed with optical character reading or optical mark reading capability to allow automated reading of each ballot with a human inserting each ballot for automated reading.

Both the ballot under scrutiny and the recording of a vote on the traditional tally board or on the electronic version may be displayed on a wall of the precinct through a projector connected to the computer for everyone to see. After the last ballot has been processed, the recorded votes will be counted, and election return generated. Observers will be able to follow the recording and tallying of votes and the preparation of the election return, allowing them to keep track of the results end to end.

The election return may then be transmitted electronically to the canvassing and consolidation servers and to all other intended destinations. And all parties may be able to do their own consolidation of the voting results.

Transparency, in the context of elections, allows a voter, the ordinary man on the street, to see how the votes on a ballot are appreciated, how the votes are recorded, how the votes are counted and how the election return is prepared. Transparency enables the voter to understand the process without need of specialized knowledge and to check if the process has been faithfully followed. The transparency of the election process is anchored on the voter’s right to know — the right to know the truth.