Transparent and credible election system

by Gus Lagman
by Gus Lagman

As part of the National Science and Technology Week, the Comelec [Commission on Elections] Advisory Council (CAC) organized a Technology Fair, held at the SMX on July 24-28, inviting vendors of automated election systems (AES) to present their solutions to the council, the Comelec itself, the media, and other interested parties.

The CAC Chairman, Under-Secretary Louis Casambre of the Information and Communications Technology Office (ICTO), was kind enough, even on short notice, to allow TransparentElections (that’s us), in cooperation with Namfrel, to participate in the presentations.

Those who presented were: 1) Dominion Voting System; 2) Indra; 3) Lambton Technologies; 4) Scytl; 5) Smartmatic; 6) Unisyn; 7) VSG Voting System; and 8) TransparentElection (TEop).

The first six presented a mix of OMR (Optical Mark Recognition) and Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) systems. The seventh was a punched-card system; while the eighth (ours), a combination of manual precinct-counting, electronic transmission, and automated consolidation and canvassing. Only VSG and Teop are Filipino developers, the latter presenting its Transparent and Credible Election System, or TCrES.

To put the issues in their proper perspective, let me mention that the main reasons for automating our elections are:

(1) to improve the accuracy of the counting of votes and tabulation of results;

(2) to eliminate, or at least minimize, cheating;

(3) to make the process more, not less, transparent to the public; and

(4) to speed up the process.

Almost all vendors can claim (even if some claims are untrue) to have the capability to improve accuracy, eliminate cheating, and cut down the processing time to a week or less. But, only TCrES can also clearly claim to have the capability to make the election process MORE, not less, transparent.

Why is transparency important?

If the voters do not see how their votes are counted, how will they know that their votes were counted correctly?

Of the many countries that have reverted from automated to manual precinct-counting, Germany, in particular, did so not only because it wants the voters to see the counting, its Constitution also wants the voters to understand how their votes were counted.

Transparency is required by Republic Act No. 9369, signed January 23, 2007. The very title of RA 9369, says, “AN ACT AUTHORIZING THE COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS TO USE AN AUTOMATED SYSTEM … TO ENCOURAGE TRANSPARENCY, CREDIBILITY, FAIRNESS AND ACCURACY OF ELECTIONS …”

Section 1 further says that, ” …the process shall be transparent and credible and that results shall be fast, accurate and reflective of the genuine will of the people.” (Emphasis mine).

If there’s cheating in manual elections, the voters and candidates would see and would have a basis for protesting. With automated precinct-counting, nobody would see the cheating. It is so unfair to the candidates that even if they are so sure of winning in a particular precinct (their bailiwick, for instance), it is so difficult, because of the lack of transparency, to prove the cheating. The protest process is thus very much impaired, a situation that saddened many losing, perhaps, cheated, candidates in the 2013 elections.

An organization in the United States called Black Box Voting said that in designing technology for elections, we must ensure that it will enable “the counting of votes in public rather than counting them in secret. We do not consent to any form of secret vote counting, administered and controlled by government insiders and their vendors.”

Today’s election mantra worldwide is, “Secret voting, public counting.”

To show you how transparent it is, here’s TCrES, in brief:

1. VOTING — same as in the past manual voting, possibly with re-designed (for simplicity and efficiency) pre-printed ballots

2. PRECINCT COUNTING — same as in the past manual counting (“taras”), but with improved design of Tally Sheet forms and Election Returns, for more accurate and less cumbersome counting

3. Encoding, verification, and ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSION of precinct results to the Municipal Board of Canvassers (MBOC) and the Central Verification Server (CVS)

4. Automated CONSOLIDATION and CANVASSING of votes at the municipal, provincial, and national levels

An interesting additional step to the above is the simultaneous precinct-counting — a sort of electronic “taras” — using a tablet (an iPad, or equivalent), projecting this to a big screen so more people can see what’s going on (therefore, MORE transparent), then printing the tablet’s version of the Election Returns (ER). After verifying that this version of the ER matches with the manual one, the tablet can then electronically transmit it to the MBOC and CVS. No need to encode the ER, since it is already in digital format.

A PCOS machine being tested by election inspectors and observers. [Photo by Romy Cayabyab during his assignment as a 'foreign election observer' in the May 10, 2010 national elections.]
A PCOS machine being tested by election inspectors and observers. [Photo by Romy Cayabyab during his assignment as a 'foreign election observer' in the May 10, 2010 national elections.]

The manual precinct counting will only take 5-12 hours, as in the past. A few precincts which might encounter problems, could take a bit longer. On the other hand, the Consolidation and Canvassing phase, which will now be automated, will be cut down from as long as six weeks, to just a few days. No more dagdag-bawas.

This real situation is the reason we have been asking Comelec the question: Why spend billions of pesos on PCOS, which only cuts down the election process by half a day, but removes the transparency in the counting process? It is, after all, the automation of the canvassing that shortens the process from six weeks down to a few days.

The Comelec should respond to this question. The P20 billion it wasted on the 2010 and 2013 elections came from taxpayers. Taxpayers deserve to know!

*** This article, first published on August 19, 2014 and circulated and posted in discussion groups, is reprinted on this site with the permission of the writer Mr Gus Lagman who is a former Comelec commissioner.

August 19, 2014 11:00 pm

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