Still a better system

HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes - The Philippine Star

A day after Filipinos cast their votes in the May 9, 2022 elections, they already knew who won, though unofficially at that.

This of course is credit to the country’s shift from manual to automated elections, allowing voters to choose their next set of leaders by shading the circle corresponding to the name of the candidate in the ballot, which is fed into a vote counting machine or VCM.

While it is true that some VCMs failed, majority did perform flawlessly.

One report mentioned that although 107,000 of the VCMs performed flawlessly, during the early hours of voting, there was focus on the 200 or only 0.0018 percent of the total VCMs that was reporting issues. This got the attention of many and it spread like wild fire especially in social media, as most negative stories do.

An election watchdog, Kontra Daya, meanwhile claims that it had received 577 reports of VCM failures that caused long queues and delayed voting.

Deputy Speaker Rufus Rodriguez has urged the House of Representatives to look into the reported malfunctioning of several VCMs across the country, saying these defective VCMs and secure digital or memory cards resulted in the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters.

However, one story that also got attention, although not as much as the negative news, was about voters who refused to surrender their ballots to poll workers and to sign waivers when the VCMs were malfunctioning. Some voters were asked to cast their votes and would insert the ballots for them once the VCMs are working or the defective ones replaced. But many preferred to wait instead of leaving their marked ballots behind just to make sure that they themselves can feed their marked ballots into the machine.

Before, it took many months before the Commission on Election (Comelec) can announce who won in an election.

As described in the Omnibus Election Code, in a manual election system, votes are cast by writing on a ballot the names of candidates for a certain position. After writing, these ballots are dropped inside the ballot box (in some areas, it was just an ordinary box). The MES is a system that involves the traditional pen and paper way of voting, counting, canvassing and transmitting the election results and other electoral processes (lawaspect.com).

In a report by then The Asia Foundation regional director for elections and political processes Tim Meisburger in 2010, he said that concerns over election credibility in the past have been exacerbated by the typically long period between voting and the official announcement of results.

He noted that 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.

Meisburger did not mention however that the manual system of election in the Philippines was actually notorious due to the presence of guns, goons and gold outside the precincts and ballot boxes being intercepted and stolen and switched along the way

Increasing public frustration, Meisburger pointed out, 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.

He described automation, in the Philippine elections context, as one where 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.

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 cellphone to servers at the municipal and national Comelec headquarters and political party offices.

Meisburger said there are many advantages to this system. For one, it is simple and understandable by the average person. 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 with the myriad of problems with handwritten ballots.

But it is not truly automated voting in the sense that voters still mark their voices by hand on a paper ballot, instead of pushing a button or tapping a computer screen.

Our young voters of course only know of this AES and will not be able to appreciate it compared to the old manual system.

But as pointed out by some, despite the noise about some failing machines, the AES continues to improve with each election.

One reported that vote after vote, the learning curve is leading to greater efficiency and transparency and that in these 2022 general elections, 99.9 percent of the VCMs performed flawlessly. On election night, transmission reached more than 85 percent of election returns, a remarkable feat in itself.

The AES has drastically improved election administration in the Philippines since it was first implemented in 2010. Vote after vote, with faster election results, and an accurate, transparent count has enabled Filipinos to trust their elections. This is probably why, according to a Pulse Asia survey conducted after the previous national election, nine in 10 voters want their future elections automated.

Indeed, there is a lot of room for improvement of this AES. In the United States, electronic voting involves several types of machines such touch screens for voters to mark choices, scanners to read paper ballots, scanners to verify signatures on envelopes of absentee ballots, and web servers to display tallies to the public. The touch screen displays choices to the voter, who can change his/her mind as often as needed, before casting the vote. Some of these machines print names of chosen candidates on paper for the voter to verify and these names on paper can be used for election audits and recounts if needed. Maybe Comelec and our legislators can look into some of the best practices abroad and adopt them here.



For comments, email at [email protected].


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