Automating the counting of votes can make things worse

Roberto Verzola is a pioneer in the local desktop computing and Internet scene: he built the “first Filipino computer” in 1982, set up the first online systems at the Senate and House of Representatives in 1991, and was awarded by industry the title “father of Philippine email.” One of the conveners of a new election watchdog called Halalang Marangal, he can be reached at rverzola@gn.apc.org.

This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, July 10, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

Current proposals to automate our elections can make things worse instead of better, because the counting becomes less instead of more transparent. The misguided objective of “minimizing human intervention” will result in fewer rather than more witnesses when fraud does occur, making it easier for cheats to cover up their crime once they break the system.

Consider the basketball game scoreboard. The scoreboard is updated manually, with chalk for blackboards, sign pen for whiteboards, and push button for digital displays. All manual, but satisfactory. Suppose someone proposes to “minimize human intervention” by putting on the hoop an electronic detector that automatically updates the scoreboard every time the ball falls into the hoop. There is one catch: the audience will get to see the scores only at the end of the game, not each time a score is made. Surely, such automation will be unacceptable to basketball fans.

Many election automation proposals today are of a similar nature: the public will lose its chance to witness the votes as they are individually counted, and will only be shown the totals when the canvassing is over.

If this loss of transparency is unacceptable in a game, then more so in an election.

Many automation proposals are based on flawed assumptions:

1. Automation will eliminate human intervention. It will not. Automation can only reduce, but never eliminate, human intervention. Automated systems will always have points of human intervention: the programmers updating the software; the technicians maintaining or repairing the machine; the staff feeding the ballots to the machine; the staff handling the final output; etc. Reducing human intervention can actually work in favor of the cheats, who will now need to recruit fewer accomplices and deal with fewer potential witnesses to the fraud.

2. Automation will minimize if not eliminate cheating. It can do no such thing. If they work as intended, automated machines can only: a) speed things up, and b) follow more faithfully the instructions of those who program them. If they are reprogrammed to cheat, the machines will follow the new instructions just as faithfully and quickly. If you want examples, just search the Internet for the keywords “U.S. automated election problems.”

3. Safeguards can prevent cheats from manipulating an automated system. This is an illusion. Cheats can master automation technologies as well as anybody else. Sooner or later, they will be able to identify the system’s weak points and break it. I’ve worked with automated machines at the level of machine language and individual chips; at this level, many things are possible.

4. The main cause of cheating is the slow manual count. This confuses the symptom for the disease. Obviously, cures based on wrong diagnoses will probably be wrong too.

In fact, the precinct-level manual counting of votes is not slow. In most precincts, it is over within several hours. More than that, the precinct count is the most transparent part of the whole process. Here, like the basketball game audience, the public can see each vote counted and the candidates’ score updated, vote by vote. Beyond that, the precinct count is an invaluable lesson in civics for our youth. Here, parents can bring their children to watch democracy – or tyranny – in action, live. Cheating that occurs at this level often involves brazen, in-your-face kind of acts that no machine can stop and no cheat can hide.

In truth, it is not the slow count that leads to cheating but the other way around: it is cheating that leads to a slow count. Especially at the municipal and provincial levels. The slow count is a symptom, an effect, of the disease. It is cheating, the disease, which causes the slow count. The solution to cheating is to punish the cheats. Our laws say that an election cheat shall be barred from holding public office for life. That alone, plus the jail terms, will make our elections clean and honest. Sadly, the 2004 election cheats went scot-free, kept their positions, or even got promoted.

Should we junk election automation then?

No, but automation should be used mindfully, not to minimize human intervention but to maximize transparency (the ability of any interested party to double-check and audit the system).

A very good example of enhancing transparency is Senator Serge Osmeña’s proposal to use digital imaging technologies to make many copies of the election return (ER) at the precinct-level. The more copies of the ERs circulated, the more difficult for cheats to cover up their crime.

Systems expert Manu Alcuaz’ proposal for LCD projectors at the municipal level is also a good example. Projecting ERs on a big screen enables more people in the audience to audit the ongoing canvass.

Halalang Marangal’s proposed citizen’s tally is still another example. We will ask non-partisan volunteer precinct watchers to use cellular phones to text the results to our databases, where the 250,000 or so precinct results will be stored. The public can then request the individual precinct results by text/SMS or via the Internet. Anyone can also download the entire database or get it on a CD.

This low-cost, highly transparent approach will empower ordinary citizens to audit the results of the elections: they can go to a voting center, watch the precinct count, jot down the results, and compare what they saw with their own eyes with the results posted on the database.  If they have a computer, they can even get the CD version, or download the database from the Internet and do their own citizen’s tally.

If they adopt transparency as the main objective, technical experts can no doubt come up with even better schemes.

Unfortunately, Congress has focused its attention on hardware-intensive proposals that will not only waste our scarce resources automating the most transparent portion of the whole electoral process but may even make it easier for future cheats to cover up their manipulation of the results.

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