Making elections transparent and accountable
Except for isolated cases of violence and electioneering in the high-tensive Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), the Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan Elections (BSKE) last October 30 was generally peaceful, according to the official reports from the Comelec. Bicol Comelec Regional Director, Atty Maria Juana Valeza confirmed it was “peaceful and orderly” even in Libon, Albay, which was under Comelec control.
I would agree. After voting at my polling precinct, I went around Naga City and nearby Pili in Camarines Sur to observe and do volunteer work of independent poll watching, along with familiar faces of poll watchers from rival political teams. There were the usual cases of missing names, finding the precincts, and vote-buying, considered normal in traditional Philippine elections. However, the general mood in all precincts was the excitement of anticipating the public counting once the polls closed at 3 p.m.
That was not to be if the elections, they say, were automated. They said they would feel anxious and apprehensive because they do not trust the VCMs (vote counting machines) will count their votes right. They prefer manual elections where voters write the names of their candidates on the paper ballot, and the votes are counted using sticks or the tara system in full view of poll watchers.
Mano-mano vs automated elections
It may seem odd. For a growing population of social media users and cellphone, laptop, and computer owners, these voters who publicly say that manual elections are more credible is an oxymoron. But isn’t it even strange that while technology is leveling up worldwide, data show that more countries are opting to go back to manual elections? France, the UK, Italy, and the Netherlands have banned the use of EVMs (electronic voting machines) and prefer centralized tallying by paper votes. The US and Japan have been using paper voting in most areas. More countries have turned to paper as the most secure way to audit their elections and detect potential vote tampering. The German Federal Court 2005 ruled that using voting machines is unconstitutional. It averred that election results can be “examined by the citizens more reliably” than by a few specialists. The ruling nailed it! It is the most telling court decision ever that upheld the public nature of the elections.
I did an unofficial (just out of curiosity) random exit poll survey on election day among 20 voters at the Tinago Elementary School, 15 at the Mabolo Elementary School, and another 15 at Penafrancia, all in Naga City. Most belong to the lower-income group, primarily women and men aged 25 to 50. It was so random that after a short preliminary introduction, all I asked was, “Mano-mano o automated gusto nyo?” The explanations came quickly, one after the other, maybe because the voters I interviewed may have not yet entirely forgotten the mysterious upsurge of votes registered during canvassing where the presidential candidate native to Naga City lost by a wide margin with issues still unresolved.
On the other hand, I asked a few teachers who manned the precincts, all expressing overwhelming support for poll automation because of speed, ease of voting (shading of ovals), and saying “How can new technology ever go wrong? They all complained of manual elections keeping them late up to the wee hours of the morning. It was the same when I asked senior citizens, students, and some professionals who believe in the efficiency of electronic counting. During the BSKE, Comelec piloted a few VCMs in Dasmarinas, Cavite, and Pasong Tamo in Quezon City, where, to everyone’s dismay, electronic glitches occurred due to a power outage. Still, the Comelec announced it is preparing for full automation in the next barangay and SK elections.
Hybrid election system
After four automated national elections marked with controversial glitches and questionable automated results, independent election system watchdogs have advocated for hybrid elections - manual voting but electronic transmission of votes. The rationale is to uphold the sovereign act of the people in choosing their leaders by actually participating in the exercise and knowing that their voices are counted right, not by the machine.
In public statements and position papers submitted to the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee (JCOC), the Committees on Suffrage and People Participation of both the Senate and the Lower House, these poll watchdogs never wavered to push for alternative election systems. Before the BSKE, a document titled Call to Action on the 2025 Automated Election System contained urgent concerns for poll transparency and accountability from election watchdogs led by NAMFREL, Ateneo School of Government, Center for People Empowerment in Governance, CODE-NGO, Center for Migrant Advocacy, DLSU Institute of Governance, ICT Leaders for Good Governance, Computer Professionals Union, Caritas Philippines, Participate and Philippine Computer Society.
Earlier in 2010, 2013, and 2016, a broad coalition of citizens’ groups for transparency and accountability banded together as AES Watch (pronounced as EYES) and released studies including on the 30-30 (30 vulnerabilities and 30 safeguards) to bring to Congress, the Comelec and the public’s attention the need to go back to public counting. It’s time to revisit these studies and experiences on machine voting to avoid repeating old mistakes and ensure the integrity of democratic elections.