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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A moment in history: Understanding poll automation for the 2010 national and local elections

FOR the May 10, 2010, elections, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) will implement full automation in the Philippines.

Republic Act 9369, or “An Act Authorizing The Commission on Elections To Use An Automated Election System In The May 11, 1998 National or Local Elections And In Subsequent National And Local Electoral Exercises,” authorizes the Comelec to undertake this automation, a first in the political history of the country.

From July 30, 1907 (elections for 80 seats in the First Philippine Assembly fought between Partido Nacionalista and Partido Nacional Progresista), up to October 29, 2007 (barangay elections), a total of 100 years, the system of elections in the country was manual. Under this system, voters have to write by hand the names of their chosen candidates, and counting is done with the board of election inspectors (BEI) reading the votes aloud and recording them by means of tara on a tally sheet or election return, and on a blackboard or tally board. Canvassing then takes place in the municipal or city board of canvassers, provincial board of canvassers and national board of canvassers, respectively.

It was this manual system of elections that gave rise to fraudulent election practices like misreading, misappreciation and substitution of ballots at the precinct level and tampering of election returns and statements of votes at the canvassing stage. After each election, the Comelec and courts are swamped with complaints of election fraud.

It took several years before RA 9369 became a law. It was shepherded in the House of Representatives by Rep. Teodoro Locsin and in the Senate by Sen. Richard Gordon. According to Sen. Edgardo Angara, sponsor in the Senate of the supplemental budget for election automation, the automation of the local and national elections in the Philippines “is imperative in order to respond to the crying need of our people: credibility of elections and legitimacy of leadership.”

Automated system under RA 9369

RA 9369 defines an automated election system “as the use of an appropriate technology which has been demonstrated in voting, counting and the consolidation, canvass and transmission of election results.” The system can either be paper-based or a direct recording electronic (DRE) election system. Paper-based election system uses paper ballots, records, and counts votes, tabulates, consolidates, canvasses and transmits electronically the results of the vote count. A DRE election system uses electronic ballots by means of a ballot display in a mechanical or electro-optical component that can be activated by the voter. It must be able to record voting data and ballot images, and to transmit voting results electronically. In either system, paper-based or DRE, the paper ballot, printed or generated by the technology applied, is considered as the official ballot.

Pilot-testing of paper-based and DRE election systems in 2008

The paper-based election system and the DRE election system were pilot-tested in the 2008 Regional Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) elections. The paper-based election system using the Optical Mark Reader (OMR) technology was pilot-tested in Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur and Shariff Kabunsuan. The DRE was pilot-tested in Maguindanao. Though there were pluses and minuses in the conduct of the automated elections in the six provinces, the automation was viewed positively. The Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting reported that the DRE and OMR cut short the time for voting, counting and canvassing, eliminated election protests and minimized election-related violence. Within 48 hours, the regional governor, regional vice governor and regional assemblymen were proclaimed by the Comelec.

On the basis of this pilot-testing of the two automated election systems in the regional ARMM elections and on the basis of cost factor, the Advisory Council—a creation of RA 9369, composed of the chairman of the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT); one member each from the Department of Education, Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and academe; three members representing ICT professional organizations; and two members representing nongovernment electoral reform organizations—recommended on March 29, 2008, that for the 2010 presidential elections, the Comelec shall adopt either the DRE or Precinct Count Optical Scan (Pcos) technology for all areas, subject to the automation budget, or the Central Count Optical Scan (Ccos) technology for all other areas not covered by DRE or Pcos. In the Pcos (an improved version of OMR), the ballots shall be scanned, recorded, photographed and counted in the precinct level. In the Ccos, the ballots coming from precincts shall be brought to a central count center to be scanned, recorded, photographed and counted. To avoid the risks of ballot snatching and harassments during transport from precincts to municipal halls and taking into account the election automation budget, the Comelec chose the more cost-saving and widely used Pcos.

Optical Scan Technology

In the United States, optical scan ballots were used by 29.5 percent of the voters in 2000 and by an estimated number of 104.83 million voters in 2008. The optical scan ballot is a paper-based technology that relies on computers in the counting process. Voters make their choices by using a pencil or pen to mark the ballot, typically by filling an oval or drawing a straight line to complete arrows. In the 2010 elections, the voters shall fill or shade ovals opposite the names of the chosen candidates.

Voting and counting flow using Pcos

On the day of the elections that will start at 7 a.m. and end at 6 p.m., a registered voter, after proper identification and issuance of a ballot by the BEI, will shade the ovals or circles opposite the names of his/her chosen candidates. He/she feeds the ballot into the Pcos. The Pcos scans, photographs and records the ballot that will thereafter be dropped into a transparent ballot box. If the ballot is spurious, it will be rejected by the Pcos.

At the close of voting hours, the Pcos is given the command to start counting the recorded votes. The Pcos prints out eight election returns that reflect the names of candidates and the number of votes garnered by each candidate. The contents of the election return are publicly read, signed and thumbprinted by the BEIs and the watchers. One copy of the election return is posted on the wall, while the results are read out loud. Other copies are distributed as provided for by law. Upon disposition of the eight copies, the BEI digitally signs and encrypts the soft copy of the election return in the Pcos, which then electronically sends the election results to the corresponding city/municipal board of canvassers and to the dominant majority party, dominant minority party, accredited citizens’ arm, Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas and the Comelec central backup server. After the electronic results have been transmitted and known nationally and even internationally, additional copies not to exceed 30 may be printed and given to requesting parties at their own expense.

For an easy understanding of the process in voting, the Comelec, through the General Instructions it will issue, shall explain the manner and procedure of voting, taking into consideration, among other things, the secrecy of the voting.

The canvassing procedure of the electronically transmitted results by provincial, city, district and municipal board of canvassers, national board of canvassers for senators and party-list representatives and by Congress for president and vice president are provided in RA 9369.

The speed and transparency in transmission eliminate the opportunity to change election results and thwart election cheats to resort to dagdag-bawas or vote-padding and vote-shaving schemes. It is the Comelec’s estimate that in 48 hours, the public will know the winners for the national positions.

Transparency and confidence-building measures

Many are apprehensive about the automated election system. Some questions raised were: (1) Will it not engender massive automated cheating? (2) Can it be hacked? (3) Can results be preprogrammed? (4) Can the vote results be altered doing electronic transmission? (5) Can the system be programmed to favor a specific candidate or group of candidates?

To address these fears and concerns, RA 9369, which was meticulously crafted with inputs from private-sector IT experts and from nongovernment electoral-reform groups during its long pendency in Congress, provides for the following:
  1. Source Code review by any interested political party or groups. The source code is the human readable instruction that defines what the computer equipment will do (Section 11, RA 9369).
  2. Field Testing of Pcos machines followed by a mock-election event in one or more cities/municipalities (Section 11, RA 9369).
  3. Examination and testing of the Pcos by political parties and candidates or their representatives, citizens’ arm or their representatives (Section 14, RA 9369).
  4. Preparation of continuity plan containing contingency measures in case of systems breakdown, and copies of this plan shall be furnished all political parties and party-lists (Section 13, RA 9369).
  5. Random Manual Audit in one precinct per congressional district randomly chosen by the Comelec in each province and city. Any difference between the automated and manual count will result in the determination of what cause and initiate a manual count for the precincts affected by the computer or procedural error (Section 29, RA 9369).
  6. Accredited political parties and deputized citizens’ arms of the Comelec shall assign watchers in the printing, storage and distribution of official ballots. Ballots shall have necessary safeguards like bar codes, holograms, color-shifting ink and microprinting (Section 15, RA 9369).
  7. Widespread stakeholders’ education and training program through newspapers of general circulation, radio, television and other media forms, as well as through seminars, symposiums, forums and other nontraditional means to educate the public and fully inform the electorate about the automated election system and inculcate values on honest, peaceful, orderly and informed elections (Section 31, RA 9369).
  8. Every registered political party or coalition of political parties and every candidate shall be entitled to one watcher in any polling place and canvassing center (Section 26, RA 9369).
  9. The Technical Evaluation Committee, composed of a representative from the Comelec, the CICT and DOST, will certify not later than three months before the date of the electoral exercise, categorically stating that the Pcos, including its hardware and software components, is operating properly, securely and accurately (Section 11, RA 9369).
  10. The Advisory Council will continue to provide advice and assistance in the identification, assessment and resolution of systems problems or inadequacies that may surface or resurface in the course of testing, operationalization, storage or disposition of the Pcos. It will also provide help in the risk management of the Pcos when a contingency or disaster situation arises (Section 9, RA 9369).
Other ingredients needed

But poll automation is not the be-all and end-all of clean and credible elections. It will not stop in an automated fashion vote-buying and election-related violence. Other ingredients must come into play and must be considered. These are the campaign for the registration of the more than a million-strong youth, cleansing of voters’ lists, Comelec/voters/candidates education on good citizenship and patriotic governance, Armed Forces/National Police militant support to the Comelec to maintain peace and order in areas of concern and immediate concern, Smartmatic/TIM’s corporate social responsibility, GO-NGO-Comelec partnership, presidential statesmanship and servant leadership vis-à-vis the elections, strict enforcement of election laws, reshuffling of election officers, mass media information/education support and passage of early voting bills in Congress.

In the 2008 US presidential elections, early voters appeared to have accounted for about one-third of the votes cast in the presidential race, availing themselves of early voting either personally in a voting machine at a central polling location, or by mail using a paper absentee ballot. In the April-May 2009 general elections in India with 714 million registered voters, 8.6 million polling stations and 1.4 million electronic voting machines, elections were scheduled separately on April 16, April 23, April 30, May 7 and May 13. Considering the vast land territory of the country and enormous number of voters, India was divided into five electoral zones, each zone consisting of several states and union territories, and each zone assigned with an election date. This zonal and early-voting arrangement enabled the Indian government to focus on each zone its security forces and electoral resources through its electoral commission.

The Comelec, under the leadership of Chairman Jose A. R. Melo, is aware of these different facets of electoral reform and hopes that with the Comelec and everyone magnanimously contributing and doing his/her share, the objective of clean and credible elections will be achievable. After all, democracy rests on three pillars: upright governance, enlightened electorate and vigilant civil society. It is the government and people working together for the public good.

Attitude of hope

Hebrew soldiers said Goliath was too big they could not kill him. David said Goliath was too big, his slingshot would not miss him. Attitude. Equipped with the correct attitude, our people can view this electoral breakthrough called poll automation, and the generous support of many all over the land, young and elderly alike, as reasons for hope and optimism. With prayer and work (ora et labora) that there are better days ahead, Filipinos will succeed. If we whine, we complain, we bemoan that the Filipinos are beyond redemption, we will fail. Against gloom and doom, we labor and hope that change is within reach, and proclaim that God provides and He will never fail the Philippines!

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