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Re-designing the Automated Election System

Prof. Rom Feria



The recent Philippine 2019 Mid-Term elections showcased the dangers of over-simplifying the election process by adding technology. The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) deployed a paper-ballot-based system that employs a counting machine (Vote Counting Machine or VCM) that generates a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT). The VCM source is openly “auditable”, and, as far as I know, verified and certified as correct by a software certification body. At the end of the day, the VCM tallies the votes, generates the election returns (ERs) and transmits it to three (3) different locations simultaneously. Note that the results are supposed to be transmitted to three (3) different locations, not to one transparency server or transparent “router” that sends it to the three different locations (this one needs to be checked — what did COMELEC use?).

The Vote Counting Machine requires two other components, a configuration and storage medium (the SD card), and the transmission device (either via 2G/3G/LTE or Broadband Global Area Network or BGAN). Note that there are more avenues of failure — from the VCM itself, to the SD cards and to the transmission. The 2019 Mid-Term elections showed multiple VCM malfunctions, SD card corruptions/damage, and failure in transmission. With the exception of the transmission, which happens at the end of the voting period, the two other types of mechanical errors delayed voting considerably! This delay can disenfranchise voters, which I believe what happened to some voters at Clustered Precinct 245, where the VCM malfunctioned right at the start.

How do we eliminate these failure points?

The proposed Automated Election System (AES) will be employ technology in a simpler and more obvious manner. The paper ballot will be retained, of course. As soon as the polling booths open, the paper ballots ready, voters can immediately cast their votes. No dependency on any machine that will malfunction. The Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) will not be inconvenienced by a malfunctioning machine. Note that there is no need for a VVPAT as well.

At the end of the day, the votes will be tallied manually, with the tallying recorded and projected on a plain white wall, or a makeshift projection screen made up of manila paper taped on blackboards, using a tablet that has built-in projector, or a notebook with a small projector. This is done in the presence of all three BEIs, poll watchers, the media, and other authorized personnel — in full transparency. This can even be live-streamed by poll watchers or media for the world to see (something that you cannot do on the VCM — you don’t exactly know how the machine reads off of the ballot). This avoids doubt on how the machine reads the votes and interprets whether the shaded circle is within a certain threshold — a jury of three BEIs can decide outright, not a machine. And this eliminates another process called Random Manual Audit (RMA), which takes money and time as well. Whilst this definitely will take longer to process, it is time well spent compared to BEIs and poll watchers waiting for replacement machines whilst hearing endless complaints from voters.

The final tally will be written on the election return, signed by all three BEIs and poll watchers, in the presence of media and the world (if it is live-streamed), before it is sealed. However, the same results, already encoded on the tablet or notebook, can then be encrypted, digitally signed and transmitted to all three (3) designated servers — not to a single transparency server or router that feeds the other three.

On the server side, upon receipt and validation, the results will then be canvassed, along with the other results from other precincts.

Compared to having a VCM — this process has full-transparency. The source code of the notebook or tablet used to tally and transmit can be audited the same way as the VCM. The process of reading the votes off of the ballot is fully transparent. There is less doubt, as any questionable way of shading can be interpreted by three BEIs, with the poll watchers assisting (and if there is a live-stream, the world as witness). With the machine, you have to trust it!

This process eliminates the need for the VVPAT and the RMA — a lot of time, and money saved by the COMELEC. Time and money that can be spent elsewhere, perhaps more training for the BEIs and giving them higher honoraria. And oh, it also simplifies the design of the ballot, as you are no longer making it conform to certain specifications to make it machine readable.

At the end of the election, after all the winners have been proclaimed. The tablet, notebook and projectors can be donated to the public school that hosted the precincts. No storage to think of (more savings), no technology that will become obsolete (no lock-in). With the full benefits of providing tools to public schools! With the current process, the schools are left with trash, with nothing gained. This new AES is a win-win, right?

And one last thing, the dependency on foreign providers is no longer necessary (Goodbye, Smartmatic!)! I believe, COMELEC, DOST-ASTI, along with UP (and other schools interested), can develop the technology within two (2) years, provided there is full support from the government.

Now, will this require changes on the laws governing elections? I don’t know. Will this revert us back to the pre-AES? No, definitely not. Will this be better? Depends on how you look at it, but I value full transparency over convenience.

What do you think?

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