Transparency in automated elections: will votes be counted right?



The vote is cast. Yet today, issues of transparency and accuracy of the machine counts continue to hound voters and candidates alike since the first automated national elections of 2010.


Voting, a sacred right and the most awaited moment for every civic citizen to choose our government leaders happen only once a day or two in three or six years. Last May 9, after the grueling campaign period, we trooped to our polling precincts as dutiful citizens to cast our votes. For the automated polls, we used black pens to shade the ovals opposite the names of our chosen ones. We next insert the ballot into the Smartmatic voting-counting machines (VCMs) to be counted. We waited to see the receipt slowly slipping out of the VCM to check if the names were correct, and we dropped the receipt onto the black storage box nearby. We left the precinct, proud to have exercised our civic duty. But wait, without seeing the counting, we paused and asked: Will my vote be counted, right? 


As a former coordinator for a national electoral study and monitoring watchdog in 2010, the AES Watch, I admit I have not been a fan of computerized voting. I looked back to the past national elections where the same voting machines were used, purchased, and refurbished for the 2013 elections in 2016 and 2019. In all these exercises, I participated as a citizen observer and monitor in the critical stages of preparations with the Comelec to help ensure the implementation of RA 9369 or the Automated Election System amending RA 8436, “to encourage transparency, credibility, fairness, and accuracy of elections.” I did not expect to know every technical detail as I joined IT, security, and programming experts in observing every step of the Comelec-led AES preparations. After coming up with a scorecard monitoring system, AES Watch gave the Comelec a “danger” rating which called for a contingency plan to address possible vulnerabilities and risk areas in system trustworthiness, accountability, and readiness (STAR) in the May 10, 2010, automated elections. We identified the issues of transparency and accuracy of the machine counts to suffer if no such contingency plan is done.


I remember the excitement of many people, including the senators and congressmen, in 2010 when the Comelec announced the “great leap” from paper-based elections to using electronic voting and counting technology for the elections. Who would not be? Automating the counting and canvassing of votes would replace the tediously slow, back-breaking manual counting, vulnerable to ballot box snatching and violence during elections, with Comelec assurances for a fast, smooth and flawless readiness of the AES. But at every election since then, the same problems of power outages, failed signals, long queues, technical glitches of rejected ballots, paper jamming, scanning, printing, and malfunctioning SD cards persist. For example, on May 9, D-day, almost 2,000 machines malfunctioned, more than those reported in 2016 and 2019. The most famous case in the vice-presidential elections of 2016 for manual recounting was also the costliest.  


The more defective the machines are in automated elections, the bigger the number of disenfranchised voters. Out of the 107,345 devices deployed for the 2022 elections, 97,345 VCMs had been used earlier by the Comelec. Hence, since 2010 the quality and efficiency of the machines have deteriorated over time. Moreover, the high cost of storing these machines in a large warehouse in Laguna is bearing heavily too on the Comelec budget.


Trust the machines 


Every vote is a precious count in favor of our candidates in these most hotly contested elections in recent history. Deployed for the 2022 elections were 107,345 VCMs in polling precincts. Bicol had 6,656 machines in the same numbers of clustered precincts where Comelec Region V reported having encountered no significant problems. 


But will the VCM count our votes correctly? Just trust the machines, the late Chairman Sixto Brillantes would tell me. But our IT, security, and programming experts would counter: “Our automated election system is almost entirely opaque. There is no way for the candidates, the political parties, the media, or the voting public to verify and validate election results. There is no transparency, which is an absolute requirement for election to be credible and democratic.” If these experts in the IT industry are strong opponents of electronic counting, who else are we going to believe?


As an observer, I also trained groups of poll watchers. It was excruciatingly difficult to guide the watchers on how and what to watch the machines if they were counting right. So what? There is simply nothing essential to see or watch except the ballot, folder, the receipt, and the machine itself. Inside, the program running the voting machine is invisible to the eye. Many developed countries like Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands had earlier implemented automated election systems only to revert to the manual system or public counting for the people to see how their votes are counted. AES Watch, Namfrel, and many IT groups agree that a hybrid system and automated canvassing best work for transparent voting.  


Trust the Comelec 


In the 2010 and 2013 polls, voters could not tell if our votes were actually counted and accurately tallied. Trust in the Comelec is key. Just a month before the elections, President Duterte appointed new commissioners close to him, namely Rey Bulay, Saidamen Balt Pangrungan, George Garcia, Aimee Torrefranca-Neri. Commissioner Garcia was a former lawyer of the son of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos who is coming in as the 17th President after Duterte. In an expected move, a day after the elections, the Comelec released a unanimous decision dismissing all disqualification cases against Marcos, Jr. on the issue of tax evasion.


Trust the government


With over 30% of votes counted in his favor, it is now inevitable that the next six years in the Philippines will have former senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. as president. But unfortunately, the presumptive president has another case of P203B unpaid estate taxes dangling over his head. So, will the continuing saga of distrust, deception, and thievery continue?