Dr. Ester O. Sevilla

 

A few days after the August 11 elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Sen. Richard J. Gordon, author of Republic Act 9369 or Automated Elections Law, declared the exercise a success. He described it as “orderly and generally peaceful, the voters were excited to try the high-tech equipment, and the teachers were happy because the voting process was quick.” He then urged the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) to start the preparations for the full automation of the 2010 elections.

“There are concerns to be addressed regarding the transmission, but the less human intervention, the more credible the results would be,” Sen. Gordon said.

 

On September 15, 2008, some thirty-three (33) participants from the academe, civil society, the military, government agencies, and other concerned sectors convened at the Beato Tariman Hall of Notre Dame University in Cotabato City to make their own assessment of the recently concluded automated elections. The forum primarily aimed at enabling the participants to identify learnings from the ARMM elections for them to come up with recommendations on how the 2010 national elections may be conducted.

 

Since the automated ARMM elections served as a pretest to the national elections, the conveners of the forum headed by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Political Caucus of Women Leaders in Mindanao (PCWLM), the Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG), and Notre Dame University (NDU) deemed it necessary to invite COMELEC spokesperson Atty. James Jimenez and Secretary-General Engr. Robert Verzola of Halalang Marangal (HALAL) to share their ideas with the group. Invited to give their respective assessments were Ms. Jumda Saba-ani of Citizens Care (C-Care) and Ms. Nida Dans of PCWLM. Requested to give their reactions were Mr. Leo Querubin of Avante and Prof. Martina Tagacay, a trainer of Smartmatics on the use of the Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) system.

 

 

Assessments of Organizations that Monitored the Automated 2008 ARMM Elections

 

Citizens Care (C-Care). A broad coalition of thirty-six (36) ARMM-based nongovernment organizations, C-Care aims at empowering the electorate in the ARMM to exercise their right of suffrage. Ms. Saba-ani reported that the recent ARMM elections were generally peaceful. However, there were irregularities that happened like before the elections, they saw propaganda materials in polling places. Then on election day some voters did not cast their votes in secret. Her group also observed that vote-buying took place in some areas. Among their recommendations were for the voters lists to be thoroughly cleansed before the 2010 elections and for the election cheats and offenders to be prosecuted.

 

Political Caucus of Women Leaders in Mindanao (PCWLM). This newly organized group of service oriented women hopes to increase women’s participation in governance. Specifically, their goal is to get more women elected to public service. Ms. Dans, who spoke on behalf of the organization, observed the following irregularities during the ARMM elections: vote-buying; barangay leaders’ dictating their constituents who to vote for; ballot snatching; failure of elections in some areas; absence of legitimate poll watchers; and dirty ballots which caused the counting machines to malfunction.

 

The PCWLM recommends the following:

 

-• Cleansing of the master list of voters

•- Provision of contingency plans in case of withdrawal of municipal canvassers (e.g., have an assistant to take over), brown-outs, non-availability of skilled operators/technicians

•- More training on the use of machines for local COMELEC people

• -More machines for the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) during the conduct of mock elections so that they can have hands-on experience on the use of the machines

• -Voters education

• -Kits and other election materials to be made available three days before elections

• -Values education for LGUs, BEIs, and COMELEC

• -Suppliers of machines to synchronize their activities

 

 

COMELEC Assessment of ARMM 2008 Elections

 

Atty. Jimenez discussed two major topics: the role of the Automated Election System and the conduct of the elections itself. He used the following indicators to assess the success of the elections:

Were the people able to cast their votes?

• Was the process orderly?

• Did the Automated Election System perform as expected?

• Were the results promptly available?

Atty. Jimenez employed the Star Rating System for each indicator. A rating of 5 Stars would mean perfect.

 

Indicator 1: Were people able to vote?

Rating: 4.5 Stars

 

The reasons given for the high rating were: (a) nearly all polling places opened on time, despite the threats; (b) voters’ turn-out reached near record levels (about 85%); and there were no significant reports of disenfranchisement.

 

Indicator 2: Smooth Process

Rating: 3.5 Stars

 

This lower rating was arrived at because despite the absence of reports of disruptions on election day up to the completion of counting and canvassing; very few cases of election –related violence reported; and .002 rate of failure of elections, there were negative indicators particularly in relation to Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) who followed wrong procedures that led to the failure of the counting machines to read the smudged ballots. They also allowed so many people other than the voters to enter the polling places.

 

Indicator 3: Performance of the Automated Election System

Rating: 3.5 Stars

 

Among the positive observations were: (a) voting on DRE was widely hailed as being easier and faster; (b) voting with OMR ballots was easy to understand; and (c) counting and canvassing proceeded with minimal disruptions. A major hitch as reported by Smartmatics was due to transmission problems such as (a) not all transmission facilities were put in place due to security concerns and (b) transmission was hampered by bad weather (low clouds prevented transmission of results).

 

Indicator 4: The Results

Rating: 4.5 Stars

 

The goal was for the results to be made available under 36 hours. The winners in Sharif Kabungsuan were proclaimed as early as August 12, and all winners were proclaimed in under 48 hours.

 

Overall Rating: 4 Stars

 

Lessons Learned

 

  1. Automation increases pressure on the BEIs. Being the gateways, attempts at subverting the results of the elections rest on them. They therefore must be fully competent and uncompromising.

2. Despite the use of Automated Election System (AES), many people were                 still apprehensive. Hence, at times actual voting became slower. There is a             need therefore for more practice on the use of voting machines.

3. The elimination of hand counting did not negatively impact the                                    acceptability of the results. It shows that properly conducted counting                    retains much of the credibility enjoyed by hand-count.

 

 

Validated Ideas:

 

  1. Automated election system is not a wonder drug. It does not, for example, address the problem of vote buying.

2. Multilevel canvassing needs to be re-examined for relevance.

3. Automated elections need time.

 

Atty. Jimenez ended his talk by saying that the guiding principle for the AES is Article 21, Section3 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states:

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government. This shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

 

 

HALAL Working Papers on Automated Elections

 

Engr. Verzola recently did a study on the experiences in automated elections of other countries. His major findings are (a) Automated elections can be costly; (b) Automated elections/voting machines have made mistakes too; (c) Double entry accounting can improve automated and manual tallies; and (d) Catching voting machine faults can be done through post-election audits of randomly sampled precincts.

 

Costs. A machine can cost between $3,000- $7,000 each. Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines are much more expensive that the Optical Mark Readers (OMRs) or optical scanners. Other unexpected costs come with the need for additional hardware, memory, and batteries. There necessarily have to be software upgrades, configuration, training, public education, maintenance, storage, and insurance all of which demand sizable expenditures.

 

Troubles with voting machines/electronic voting. Engr. Verzola enumerated the problems that may arise from the use of voting machines. These are “uninitialized” voting machines, meaning the totals in the memories should be zero; candidate/whole race/ ballots may not be counted; candidate’s votes may be reversed; wrong winners may come out; multiple voting; votes exceeding registered voters; negative votes; and unauthorized software replacement.

 

Problems inherent to complex technologies. Engr. Verzola cited problems such as software bugs, hardware problems, environmental stresses which may worsen calibration problems, poor or flawed design, human error, and malicious tampering.

 

Engr. Verzola reminded the participants not to be complacent, because false trust can be generated especially among people who are not familiar with computers. He warned them that DREs’ problems, for example, can be insoluble because there is no record of voter intent and voter cannot check electronic record. In programming, it is possible to put one thing on the screen, another on the printer, and still another on a memory card/stick. That is why, Engr. Verzola said, that DREs have been phased out in California, Ohio, and elsewhere in the United States. In other words, DREs are considered obsolete already.

 

Coping with machine trouble. To address the problems cited earlier, Engr. Verzola suggested the following:

 

  1. Employ double- entry accounting for election tallies. This is universally recognized to be superior to single-entry accounting system because this minimizes clerical errors.

2. Do post election statistical audits to ensure the integrity of machine                          results. This is the perfect time to undertake statistical audits so that we                  can arrive at a certain confidence level. Random sampling of precincts can            confirm at 95 per cent or higher confidence level the integrity of machine              results.

3. Cleanse the voters’ list.

 

Engr Verzola ended his talk with a strong recommendation of his group HALAL for COMELEC to conduct an audit by manually counting the ballots in a sample of precincts to determine correct results.

 

Reactions

 

Mr. Leo Querubin from Avante (Optical Mark Reader or OMR provider) and Ms. Martina Tagacay (a trainer for Smartmatics)were requested to give their observations. Mr.Querubin shared issues raised such as dirty ballots, which in effect were considered marked hence not counted; very little time allotted for mock elections; Avante being awarded the project very close to election time; use of pencil (which means whatever was written could easily be erased); brown-outs; added cost for the COMELEC; and people’s total trust in machines (which in fact could also go wrong).

 

Other feedback given were the misperceptions that the OMRs and printers overheated because smoke started to come out from the latter; problems in transmission; some were trained in operating DRE, but assigned to operate OMR; and since the COMELEC had strict instruction that the machines could not be touched, the Avante people could not do anything. One big concern happened in Wao, Querubin said, when six precincts in the canvassing server registered zero votes. There could also be cases when the number of votes cast was bigger than the actual number of registered voters in a precinct. This could happen, Querubin explained, because a BEI, could vote in the precinct he or she was assigned.

 

Querubin also mentioned the reported pockets of fraud such as ballot snatching and photocopying of ballots which were used during the actual voting. What happened was that those that were counted were the ballots that had been tampered with. “The problem,” Querubin lamented, “was that nobody squealed.” He added that the weakest link in the OMR system was when only one person, either the municipal treasurer or the BEI, would hold the ballots. Querubin said that technology is a good step forward, but cheating can be prevented if everyone is vigilant.

 

Finally, Querubin said that because Avante overshot its target of proclaiming all winning candidates within 36 hours by 12 hours, he could rate their performance to be below par.

 

Ms. Tagacay, for her part, was convinced initially that the Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) technology was very good. During the training she saw that what was printed in the ballot was registered on the screen so voters could see what they had written.

 

The machine could also produce a summary of ballots produced by the BEIs.

 

Ms. Tagacay did not see that brownouts would be a problem because there was back-up power that could last for as long as 14 hours. On the issue of fraud, the trainers were already forewarned during their training that it could happen. The big problem that she encountered as a trainer had to do with the people to be trained. She recommended that the technical staff should be screened properly, and that the training should be done early.

 

Recommendations

 

Four groups were formed and each was tasked to give recommendations on how the 2010 elections could be successfully conducted.

 

Recommendations to Civil Society Organizations (CSOs):

 

• Strengthen networking to expand membership for manpower support;

• Make members more vigilant;

• Firm up criteria for selection of members;

• Sustain initiatives through fund sourcing;

• Define mandate to ensure that their data can be translated into action; and

• Maintain integrity and independence.

 

Recommendation to COMELEC:

 

• Focus on reliability of the technology used; do an audit.

 

On the use of automation, the group assigned to the topic recommended that we go back to manual elections so that there is transparency in counting. However, if elections will really be fully computerized in 2010, they suggested the use of biometrics.

 

Recommendations of the last group:

 

• Cleanse the voters’ lists;

• Use biometrics;

• Educate voters; and

• Train BEIs very well on their duties.

 

Responses to the recommendations:

 

Atty Jimenez agreed to the idea of strengthening networking among the civil society groups. There should also be greater coordination of these groups with the COMELEC. He said that going back to manual elections would be backsliding. Overall, he said that the pressure is really on the BEIs.

 

On the part of CSOs, they are hopeful that automated elections will reduce, if not totally eradicate fraud. They promise to continue monitoring, assessing, and educating the stakeholders.

 

Engr. Verzola reminded the participants that they should be very clear about what they are trying to solve. “Fraud is the problem,” he said, “hence we should focus less on speed, and more on fraud. It is a moral issue, and you cannot rely on machines to correct a moral issue.” His recommendations are first, punish the cheaters; second, review all our assumptions, and third, recognize the problems that cannot be solved by automation.

 

Possible Way Forward for Automation

 

Majority of the participants would like to give automation a try, but care must be taken that there should be a cleansing of the voters’ list, voters’ education, and more focus on the BEIs. Also, it must be remembered that automation leaves very little, if any, paper trail so election fraud will be harder to prove compared to manual elections.

 

They also said that the real test of the use of automated elections would be in a contested election, which the ARMM certainly was not, considering the lack of contenders for ARMM governor.

 

Synthesis

 

• Civil society should expand membership, networking, and coordination.

• COMELEC needs to improve the system and put pressure on the BEIs who are the major players in the elections.

• COMELEC should adopt double entry accounting for check and balance.

• Automation is good, but there should be more intensive training for all involved. Training should also be done earlier. In the final analysis, the process needs to be attended to. Machines can be good, but the process should be good also.

 

 

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