The Manila Times : Transparency measures: QR codes on election returns and voter receipts

News & Interviews
2 June 2021

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

THE counting of votes followed the close of voting on election day. Prior to the automation of the elections, the counting and recording of votes were done in the following manner:

  1. The Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) emptied the contents of the ballot box in full view of watchers.
  2. The BEI then unfolded the ballots and formed piles of 100 ballots per file, binding each pile with a rubber band.
  1. The BEI members then assumed their positions - the chairman to read the ballots, the second BEI member to record the votes on a tally board, and the third member to record the votes into the tally sheet.
  2. The chairman then takes a pile of ballots, takes a ballot from the pile and reads the names of candidates voted for and the offices for which the candidates were voted. The reading of the names in the ballot is guided by a set of rules for the appreciation of ballots. While the chairman reads each name on the ballot, the second BEI member records the vote into the tally board and the third member records the vote into the tally sheet. Upon completing the reading of the names on a ballot, the chairman then affixes his signature and his right thumb mark at the back of the ballot then proceeds to the next ballot. This is done repeatedly until the last ballot in the pile.
  1. After completing a pile of ballots, the votes are counted per candidate. The votes counted on the tally board and the votes counted in the tally sheet are compared. In case of discrepancy, the pile is recounted.
  2. After all piles of ballots have been read, the BEI sums up the totals recorded for each candidate and the aggregate sum recorded in the tally board or sheet and on the Election Return (ER).

The reading of the ballots, the recording of votes into the tally board and tally sheet, and the recording of the vote count into the ER were all done under the watchful eyes of observers.

With the automation of the national and local elections, the above-described activities of the BEI were taken over by the vote counting machines (VCM). The following is what happens inside the VCM:

  1. When a voter feeds his ballot into the VCM, a picture of the ballot is generated and, beginning 2016, the voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) is printed.
  2. A vote record is created following the scanning of the ballot.
  3. The votes for each candidate are then counted and recorded into the ER.
  4. The ER, which shows the results of the counting of votes in the voting precinct, is then printed.

Unlike in the manual counting of votes, the assessment of the marks on the ballot, the recording of votes into a vote record, and the counting of votes and recording of the vote count into the ER are not observable as these are done inside the machine. Transparency has been totally lost undermining the overall credibility of the election results.

The VVPAT allows the voter to check if the choices he made on the ballot are properly recorded by the VCM. However, in case of a discrepancy, the voter has no recourse but to cite the discrepancy to the BEI who takes note of the report. The voter can no longer retrieve his ballot from the ballot box nor is he issued a replacement ballot.

Neither is there any assurance that the votes counted are properly recorded by the VCM into the ER.

In the First Media Conference for the 2022 National and Local Elections (NLE) held by the Commission on Elections on May 14, 2021, Commissioner Marlon S. Casquejo announced additional transparency measures: 1) for the first time, the Comelec will include the digital signatures of the Electoral Board, formerly the BEI, in the transmission of results; and 2) the transmission of the VVPATs with the corresponding ER from each VCM to the transparency server and canvassing servers.

Affixing the digital signatures of the members of the Electoral Board to the ER ensures that it is protected from any tampering and can be verified as having come from a legitimate source. The manner of verification is yet unknown.

Transmitting all the VVPATs to the transparency server will allow various groups connected to the transparency server to perform an electronic recount of the votes based on the VVPAT and the result of the recount may be compared with the vote counts reflected in the ER.

The Comelec can take a further step like encoding the ER data into a QR (Quick Response) code and printing it on the ER. Once the ER is posted on the door of the corresponding voting precinct, interested parties may take a picture of the QR code which will allow the interested parties, even at the local level, to perform their own vote tally. An ER may have a QR code each for the national contests, party list and local contests.

The Comelec may also encode VVPAT data into a QR code and print it on the VVPAT. This is seen to enhance the process of conducting the random manual Audit.

Transparency measures are not the same as transparency per se but may result in higher credibility of the elections results.

Still, the question remains: Is there a way of making the VCM count and generation of the ER observable and transparent?