The Manila Times : Understanding the automated election system (2)

News & Interviews
25 August 2021

By Gus Lagman | The Manila Times

On Election Day, we go to our assigned precincts, approach the electoral board table and receive our ballots already pre-printed with the candidate names and an oval opposite each name; we shade the ovals opposite the candidate names of our choices and then feed the ballot into the vote counting machine (VCM). Then, we leave. Some of us come back in the evening to check out the precinct-counting of the votes, which, done by the vote counting machine, only takes a few minutes, beginning to end.

The results of the precinct-counting, referred to as the election returns, are transmitted electronically by the electoral board from the precincts to the city/municipality board of canvassers (CMBoC) to be consolidated by the CMBoC's computer server with the results coming from the other precincts in that city/municipality. The results of that consolidation make up the certificate of canvass (CoC), which then serves as the basis for the proclamation of the mayor, vice mayor and councilors for that city/municipality.

The city/municipality certificate of canvass, or CoC, is transmitted to the provincial board of canvassers (PBoC), then consolidated with the results coming from the other cities/municipalities in that province to come up with the provincial CoC. The provincial CoC serves as the basis for the proclamation of the governor, vice governor, members of the provincial board and congressman/congresswoman.

The provincial CoC is transmitted to the national board of canvassers (NBoC), where it is consolidated with the CoCs from the other provinces (and highly urbanized cities) to come up with the national CoC. The national COC serves as the basis for the proclamation of the president, vice president, senators and party-list representatives.

And that's the whole electoral process from the perspective of the voters. Neat, isn't it? Actually, there's just one problem. They forgot about one important aspect of a good election system. Transparency.

Quoting from the book, Code Red, "Unobservable vote-counting is inherently insane." Very well said, indeed!

And here's what the law, Republic Act 9369 says:

An Act amending Republic Act 8436 (as amended by RA 9369), entitled "An Act authorizing the Commission on Elections to use an Automated Election System to encourage transparency, credibility, fairness and accuracy of elections… (emphasis mine).

"Section 1. Declaration of Policy. It is the policy of the State to ensure free, orderly, honest, peaceful, credible and informed elections … which shall involve the use of an automated election system that will ensure … that the process shall be transparent and credible and that the results shall be fast, accurate and reflective of the genuine will of the people." (Emphasis mine.)

The title of the law mentions the word; it's very first section, Declaration of Policy, mentions it. There is no reason at all to ignore it. And here's how it is: Any time precinct-counting is automated, transparency will be lost. Stands to reason – nobody witnesses the counting, not the electoral board and not the voters!

It's the machine software that counts the votes. And who developed that software? The service provider. A foreign team writing the software for Philippine elections, when we have many excellent technical people in the country who can do the job just as well if not better. It just doesn't sound right. And this foreign team does not even have a perfumed reputation.

What I suggest we employ instead is a hybrid system: manual precinct-counting (for transparency) and automated canvassing (for speed). Will it take much longer because of the manual counting at the precincts? Not much. With all the improvements in the design of the ballot and the election returns, maybe it will take five hours longer on average out of a through-put time of a week or so. But the system will be transparent to the voters - something that should not be compromised.

And an important part of the system should be the immediate uploading of the election returns to a public website that is accessible to all. Maybe the Comelec might even make available to the public a computer program to tabulate the results. Or an Excel template that the public can use. This is important as many of the voters are not really tech-savvy.

There are many advantages in adopting this transparent system:

– All steps of the election process are transparent to the voting public; precinct-tallying is done under the watchful eyes of the voters

– Accuracy of the counting is very high; after all, manual counts are the basis of accuracy

– Cost, at approximately P4 billion, is much less than that of DRE (touchscreen) and OMR (at present used by Comelec)

– Very minimal EB training and no voter training necessary

– Vulnerability to cheating is very low; only retail cheating, if at all

– Software will use Open Source; can be reviewed by anybody interested

– Since only PCs and servers will be used, they can be purchased in any big city; therefore, less logistics concerns; sales opportunities are also spread around

– No warehousing and equipment maintenance necessary, as all the machines can be sold or donated to schools after each election; a new set can be purchased every three years

– No ballot box snatching, as the results are transmitted electronically.

Truly, it makes a lot of sense to make our election system transparent. If we do, we would be one of the growing number of countries that have abandoned secret counting.

(If you're wondering why there's a "Part 2" in the title, that's because I found out that I used that very same title in an article I wrote some seven years ago.)