WHILE acknowledging that automation has a role to play in modernizing our elections, which remains a pitiful throwback from the first-ever held local polls in Bulacan more than a century ago, local information technology pioneer Roberto Verzola thinks the real problem does not lie with having an antiquated electoral system but with the fact that the cheats don’t get punished at all.
“They are blaming the manual system as the cause of cheating or that it makes cheating easy,” Verzola says. “But that is not correct. The system can be slow or fast but there will still be cheating unless you punish the cheats.”
In many instances, Verzola says, it is obvious who commits electoral fraud. But since they just get away with their crime, they just keep on doing it. “They even get promoted, occupy the highest positions in this country.”
Since the punishment for electoral cheats is perpetual disqualification from public office, Verzola says punishing them can have the added value of helping cleanse the government bureaucracy of cheats.
Computerization gives a false sense of security that everything will be tamper-proof, he says. “Computerizing the system will not stop them from committing fraud. Once they learn how to, cheats will make use of computers to cheat.”
Another problem with automation is that it will make cheating so much harder to detect and prosecute, says Verzola, pointing to the experience in the U.S. where there are “big issues about cheating precisely because the system is computerized.”
For instance, he cites the ballots that are entered into the counting machines. There is no way, he says, to double-check if the totals actually reflect the true count of the ballots. That is why he recommends that electoral processes at the precinct level should remain manual.
“Of course, we want the system to be faster, to be less prone to unintentional human errors. But some computerization proposals will only make the system less transparent,” Verzola says, proposing instead an alternative use of computers to make the process more transparent by making more people participate instead of minimizing human involvement.
Verzola has recently spearheaded the forming of the group Halalang Marangal (or the Network of Citizens for Honest Elections and Truthful Statistics). He says they intend to do a citizens’ audit of the elections in 2007 because the elections watchdog National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) cannot be relied upon anymore to make an honest tally. (See also Verzola’s studies on the extent of cheating in the 2004 presidential elections here and here.)
Halalang Marangal’s system is SMS (text)-based. Watchers will text precinct results to a central database. Its big difference with the official and Namfrel count is that the results will be accessible or downloadable to anyone via text or the Internet.
“There will be complete transparency to enable citizens in every precinct to do their own independent audits, double-checking and comparing output to input,” says Verzola, who thinks this is the correct way to use technology in the electoral process.
“Today, there is no way an ordinary voter or watcher or BEI (Board of Election Inspectors) member can ensure or convince themselves that their report will be reflected in the national tally. The system is not transparent enough,” he says.
This only means that there will still be value in getting copies of election documents. Halalang Marangal will thus be seeking Comelec accreditation come election time.
The system has been demonstrated at the World Bank’s Panibagong Paraan exhibit recently, making it as one of the 90 finalists. Verzola says they will conduct further tests and public presentations to perfect the system.
The system, which will run on non-proprietary software developed by Verzola himself, will cost very little and rely on the ubiquity of cellphones among Filipinos (approximately 40 million users at present). The central database will require only about 5 to 10 computers and can be mirrored in as many websites.
“In fact, at the World Bank exhibit, the server we used cost less than P10,000,” Verzola reveals.
To know more about Halalang Marangal’s system, visit its website.