Will automated elections in the Philippines increase public confidence?

Author: Tim Meisburger, The Asia Foundation

In the past, Philippine elections have frequently been marred by allegations of widespread cheating and other electoral malpractice. The most famous (or perhaps infamous) method of cheating is called dagdag/bawas (add-subtract), when votes are subtracted from the opposition candidate and added to a favored candidate, and vice versa.

Concerns over election credibility have been exacerbated by the typically long period between voting and the official announcement of results. Delays were caused in part by an antiquated polling procedure that required voters to remember candidate names and write them on a ballot paper, leaving polling officials to decipher the handwriting of all voters, including some less than fully literate, all the while dealing with complaints from watchful party officials who were ‘certain’ that the illegible scrawl was a vote for their candidate.

Increasing public frustration prompted the Philippine government to propose in the mid-1990s that the polling process be automated to decrease cheating and simplify polling and vote-counting. Some supported this because they believed automation would serve as an effective check on cheating, while others saw modernisation as a means to finally do away with the infamous write-in ballot process.

After several false starts, automated elections were finally tested in the 2008 Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) elections. The tests were generally viewed as successful (although some disputed that conclusion), and the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) went ahead with plans for an automated May 10, 2010 National Elections. But as the Philippines finally seems poised to complete its 15-year automation odyssey, doubts are being raised.

Automation, which was once seen as a panacea for election-related problems, is increasingly being viewed as potentially a source, rather than the solution, for the problems weakening the integrity and credibility in the election process.

Recently, a widely-respected international risk assessment firm published a highly critical report, which builds on concerns previously expressed by local and international election watchdogs and local IT associations, predicts a high probability of ‘failure of elections’ due to ‘automation uncertainties.’ The paper, distributed to top embassy officials, watchdogs, and political parties, further concludes that ‘the bid to automate the 2010 elections increases the pressure significantly and adds strain to a country that has historically experienced elections mismanagement, corruption and fraud.’

So what does ‘automation’ actually mean in the Philippine elections context? Voters will receive a pre-printed ballot and will shade an oval next to each candidate they choose. The voter will then feed the ballot into a Precinct Count Optical Scanner (PCOS) located above the ballot box. As the ballot passes through the scanner into the box, the PCOS will save the marks in its internal memory.

This is not actually new technology; the shading and scanning process has been used by educators for standardised tests since the 1960s. And it is not truly automated voting, since voters still mark their choices by hand on a paper ballot, rather than pushing a button or tapping a computer screen. So, where exactly then, is the automation? The clue is in the name of the machine that scans the ballots: Precinct Count. During the polling process the PCOS stores the votes, and at the end of election day, automatically adds the votes, then prints out a paper form listing the totals for each candidate, and automatically transmits those totals through an internal cell phone to servers at the municipal and national COMELEC headquarters and political party offices.

There are many advantages to this system. It is simple and understandable by the average person. The technology involved, at least in the scanning process, is tested and proven, and consequently unlikely to result in counting error. If there are doubts about the accuracy of the machine count, the paper ballots can be manually recounted to confirm results. And, because ballots are pre-printed with the candidate names, this system does away with the myriad of problems with handwritten ballots.

However, despite the proven technology, some say they are unclear how well it will work and say they worry that the machines will not accurately record the votes, either because they are unreliable or because they have been rigged. A series of problems with the machines have helped fuel this uncertainty. For example, to prevent the use of fake ballots, the PCOS contain an ultraviolet scanner that can read a special code printed in ultraviolet ink on authentic ballots (similar to the watermarks used on some currency to help prevent counterfeiting). In pilot testing, however, the ultraviolet scanner was rejecting too many authentic ballots, and that feature had to be disabled. The problem is likely to do with the printing of the mark rather than with the machine itself, and glitches like this are to be expected with new technology. However, small, unrelated problems can easily undermine confidence in the system. Unfortunately, during one of the final rounds of testing on May 3, widespread glitches appeared again, requiring reprogramming of the machines and postponement of further tests to May 7, just three days before the election.

Despite fears that the problems might be part of a plot to induce a failure of elections, COMELEC staunchly maintains that the election can go ahead on Monday, May 10, across the nation. On May 6, the military announced that at least 80 per cent of the vote-counting machines in Metro Manila have been delivered to their respective precincts, but the reconfigured memory cards may not be able to reach 5 per cent of the country, mostly in Mindanao, until election day.

Locals feed ballots into the scanning machines during a mock election in Cotabato City.

Many people also say they worry that the results will be manipulated, either inside the PCOS or after transmission. Although no one has yet demonstrated how this might be done, a lack of transparency related to the proprietary software of the PCOS and the processes surrounding vote aggregation fuel unease. The history of electoral cheating has made some citizens less likely to trust this process, or any process.

Apart from technological concerns (which I feel are probably overblown), there are legitimate concerns with the potential failure of associated election logistics. Because the new polling system is expected to handle significantly more voters per hour than the old manual system, the number of precincts (polling stations) has been reduced from 250,000 to under 80,000. Even if this works technically, poll locations can have a considerable effect on turnout. Two out of three voters will go to a new station location, and for some of the 50 million registered voters in the Philippines, this could lower turnout or cause confusion on election day.

Filipino polling officials do have a reputation for effective improvisation, and run mostly credible elections when faced with confusing instructions, lack of materials, and a stressful political environment. But even this may not be enough to overcome our last concern: public perception.

Even if voters and officials understand the process, the machines are accurate, and the transmission of results precise, doubts will persist. The new process is just that: new; and it is less transparent than the old, while the intensity of political rivalries has not decreased. Every time a race is close, or the outcome goes against conventional wisdom, the losing candidate is likely to cry foul and blame the new system.

Whether or not these allegations have traction will depend on public perception of the process. If they find their polling station easily, have no problems marking the ballot, and see that local results more or less reflect their expectation, then Filipinos are likely to have confidence in the process, and the first national automated elections will be viewed as a historic advance. If, on the other hand, chaos reigns on election day, allegations of malpractice (whether or not it occurs) will spread, and the elections may be seen as a historic failure. Personally, I expect a result somewhere in the middle. There will be problems and solutions, positives and negatives, and the Filipino people will muddle through somehow, as they have so often in the past.

Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Elections and Political Processes.

This article was first published here at the Asia Foundation’s blog In Asia.

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