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What can go wrong with poll automation?

Posted on: September 21, 2009

What can go wrong with poll automation?

By Anna Valmero
First Posted 00:48:00 09/21/2009

Filed Under: Technology (general), Elections

(First of two parts)

MANILA, Philippines—What can go wrong with the P7.2 billion poll automation plan of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and are there means to prevent them?

The poll body’s plan to use 80,000 precinct count optical scan machines (PCOS) from Smartmatic and Total Information Management (TIM) to speed-up the counting, transmission and canvassing of votes is aimed at preventing cheating, specifically “dagdag-bawas” or vote padding/shaving during the canvassing of election results in 2010, said election lawyer and Libertas member Luie Guia.

Libertas is a non-profit association of lawyers committed to law and justice reform, democracy and human rights promotion in the country.

But Guia also warns that fast tracking the counting of results and renewing several stages of the election process will not stop election operators themselves from cheating and committing fraud in the results, especially during the casting of votes in polling precincts.

Under the automated system, voters will shade ovals opposite pre-printed names of candidates in specially-printed ballots and feed them to the machines for scanning (of ballot images) and counting; the machines will then count the votes and transmit results electronically from polling precincts to Comelec servers (located in Metro Manila) for consolidation.

Overall, pre-printed names on ballots will prevent “mis-appreciation” (or using non-registered names of candidates) of votes; electronic transmission of election results (ERs) will help reduce physical interference;; automated counting and consolidation of results would result in faster declaration of winners (about 48 hours by Comelec’s estimates).

The new system also produces several copies of the ballot data, particularly the scanned digital images of ballots when they are fed to the PCOS, a receipt-like print out of the voter’s choices after the ballot is fed into the machine. Also, 30 copies of ERs will be printed before and after transmission of results- all of which can be used to crosscheck and compare results.

Despite these foreseen merits, Guia said Comelec should “work double time” to educate voters, teachers, poll watchdogs and all stakeholders on how to safeguard the automation system that, according to him, is still prone to “retail cheating” and also incite violence during voting period.

“Voter’s education is key to prevent fraud in the new electoral process because election operators would depend on them to introduce cheating and fraud in the results. Likewise, poll watchdogs should know which parts of the process are critical so they can guard against cheating,” said Guia.

System weaknesses

Contrary to what many believe, hacking poll machines or tampering with the results while they are being transmitted are not the most contentious issues in poll automation because these would be expensive and difficult, according to IT experts.

“They can resort to other means by using the system’s inherent weaknesses such as buying votes or harassing the BEIs (inspectors) to pay voters so they can fill up ballots themselves,” said Guia.

Aside from vote buying, Guia said fraudsters could delay the transport of machines to polling stations to prevent elections or even intimidate election inspectors into doing something to damage or cause the machines to break down such as putting bubble gum or other damaging substances.

Worse, machines could be stolen to prevent automated counting and consolidation of votes.

The manner of voting in automation—that is, by shading ovals opposite a candidate’s name on the ballot—also fails to reflect the intent of the voter, which leads to several issues such as appreciation of an “overvote”, Guia added.

In manual polls, when a voter has an overvote for example, he picks 13 candidates for senate, the first 12 choices are tallied by the BEI and the 13th choice is disregarded as an overvote; in automated polls, Comelec initially declared that the poll machines will disregard all 13 votes as overvote, Guia said.

Although the pre-printed names on ballots will prevent mis-appreciation of votes during manual tallying of votes, shades are difficult to assess if they are tampered or written by one person only, and coupled with the lack of serial numbers on the prototype ballots by Smartmatic-TIM, would make vote buying proliferate again, Guia added.

Without serial numbers, ballots can be taken out of the polling place to be filled up via shading by a person other than the voter, who will get paid by selling his vote—a common form of retail cheating and vote buying, said Guia.

In manual polls, serial numbers serve as primary security check to ensure a voter casts his votes on the ballot issued to him by the board of election inspectors and that no fake ballots will be counted during the tallying of results.

Voter education is key

The print, broadcast and online media will play a vital role in helping to educate voters and all stakeholders regarding the new automated poll system.

“Media should be vigilant on taking up the role of educating all stakeholders from voters, watchdogs and election officials,” Guia said, noting the national elections are about eighth months away.

“If voters will be educated not to sell their votes and watchdogs will be trained to guard the important stages against cheating, then we have better chances of success with automation,” said Guia.

Information campaigns for teachers on the basic operation of the system should start as early as now if the Comelec plans to deploy at least 400,000 teachers in the 80,000 clustered precincts.

Guia added an independent citizen’s arm should render a quick count or parallel count that can be compared with the official partial results to be released by Comelec during consolidation of votes, aside from the quick counts to be provided by the media.

He said a quick count or parallel count will never be obsolete. “In 2010, there is much need for an independent, citizen’s arm that will do a parallel count or what we term in manual polls as quick count. Ways on how to conduct it might change but parallel count is needed to counter-check the published results,” said Guia.


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