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The Manila Times - What went wrong in the May 13 elections?

News & Interviews
29 May 2019

By Gus Lagman | The Manila Times

IT is not only information technology (IT) practitioners who say that the most recent electoral exercise — on May 13, 2019 — must have been one of the worst, if not the worst, implementation of automated elections since the first such automated elections were held in 2010. Even some ordinary voters with no IT experience are saying the same thing.

This is truly surprising considering that it was already the fourth time that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) would be running this automated system, and it would not have been unfair to expect that the operation should be close to flawless. But, lo and behold, it was not! In fact, it was worse than the previous elections.

What went wrong? Quite a few.

1. There were more vote counting machines (VCMs) that malfunctioned. Many IT practitioners expected that this would happen because those VCMs are now three years old. Worse, they were not used at all during those three years. More failures can be expected when electronic equipment are not used for many years.

2. A lot more SD cards malfunctioned, compared to previous years. The rumor is that the Comelec bought the cards from the lowest bidder, instead of from the “lowest responsive bidder.” The latter description assures government agencies that quality is not sacrificed when the lowest bidder, as per the procurement law, is awarded the contract.

3. There was a seven-hour outage, meaning, that during the election night processing, there was a seven-hour gap when no updated results were being reported to the public. That was the first time such a horrible occurrence would happen. The story goes that after the 6:15 p.m. update release on the results of the elections (based on 0.38 percent of the voter turn-out), the Comelec went silent. For a very long seven hours. Then at around 1:15 a.m. of the following morning, May 14, the commission released an updated report, covering approximately 91 percent of the voter turn-out. No clear explanation to the public as to what happened.

4. To be treated as a separate failure by itself, was the lack of — actually almost zero — visibility of the Comelec commissioners during those seven hours. Even if there were no problems, the credibility of the results would be enhanced if some commissioners and/or the chairman himself, appear on TV to explain what is happening. This becomes even more important when problems occur. That seven-hour outage was such an occurrence. The biggest ever, in fact. As far as I can recall, no commissioner came out to clearly explain that serious election processing malfunction.

There may have been a few more mishaps, but the above were the major ones.

Let me restate, at this point, what I have been saying for the last 10 years — “vote counting at the precincts should not be automated!”

Aside from the problems mentioned above that should not have occurred at all if the precinct-counting had not been automated, there is an even bigger reason why precinct-counting should remain manual — that very first step in the electoral process will make the whole end-to-end election system transparent.

(Do the voters know what happens to their votes after they feed their ballots into the machine? No, they don’t!)

It is for this reason that several European countries that had automated their elections, reverted to manual precinct-counting. Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, are just three of those countries. I keep repeating this argument because there are some politicians who say that to go back to manual would be to go back to the “dark ages.” Certainly, the three countries I just cited are not backward countries.

In addition, these same politicians probably do not understand that the proposal is not to go back to the old manual system. The proposal is simply not to automate the vote-counting at the precincts. Transmission of the results from the precincts to the municipal and then to the provincial boards of canvassers will be done electronically and canvassing will be fully automated.

Since manual vote-counting at the precincts is expected to only take one day, at the most, and since the three-level canvassing will be fully automated anyway, the whole election process will therefore take only one day longer than the present system.

However, apart from the billions of pesos that would be saved, this proposed system would have the very important feature of transparency. Something that is lost when vote-counting is automated.

The only question left in the minds of IT practitioners who understand election systems, is why the Comelec commissioners refuse to consider this more effective, less costly, and more transparent “hybrid” system.