18 MAY 2007
We Can Use Cell Phones to Vote for Stars, Why Can't We Use Them to Vote
for Our Leaders?)
Ironically, while we have toppled government leaders by texting, we cannot seem to use technology to vote them in place. Our electoral system scores very low in the evolutionary ladder, second only to the plastic ballot boxes I recently saw being used in Africa, and voting by a show of hands.
Our system is in dire need of a makeover, one that is worthy of the Internet age. Even the Commission on Elections (Comelec) thinks so, although it somehow always shoots itself in the foot every time it tries to bring up the subject. The good news is this July, Comelec is finally going to test an Internet voting system with Filipinos working in Singapore. The plan is not exactly flawless, but it’s still a step in the right direction.
As expected, too many naysayers complain loudly whenever computerization and elections are mentioned in the same breath. Their main beef: computerization will make cheating easier. If their assertion is accurate, how come no politician has ever tried stealing via Internet banking?
Besides, cheating already exists in our election culture, whether technology is there or not. In fact, we can use the strengths of computers to solve the most persistent headaches we always face during elections: slow count, high costs, miscommunication, and recurring human error.
Computerizing elections can only result in:
Computerization will mean we no longer have to count the votes manually and one by one. We will know who won within a day or two, instead of waiting a week or more. As of this writing, Pampanga has announced that it will probably have a new governor by Friday, four days after the vote. The rest of the country will probably wait longer.
In the most progressive countries (from where we often copy our fashion and cultural trends), their computerized systems allow them to know who won within a day or two. In the United States, the longest count in recent history was in 2000, when George W. Bush and Al Gore had a very tight presidential race and votes had to be recounted. Even their recount took only a few days to do.
Other election-related processes will be accomplished with less complications as well. When the Supreme Court disqualified Joselito ‘Peter’ Cayetano at the last minute, the Comelec could no longer remove his name from the ballot. Digital ballots will be easier to correct, should corrections be needed.
Digital ballots will bring savings on money, time, and effort. We will use less paper (and even help save trees in the process). Our newly elected officials can go to work earlier. And our losing candidates can also file their disputes earlier. (It might still take the same amount of time for electoral protests to be resolved, but then that’s another issue altogether.)
Previous elections, including this recent one, are constant proof that human counting is inefficient. It is slow and prone to errors. Even our most persistent math teachers are not built for the repetitive and tedious task of ballot counting.
Witness the way we count the vote: Teacher Alpha picks out one ballot from the box. She announces a name to Teacher Beta, who scans the board for the right name and ticks off one vote for that candidate. The results are also echoed on paper by another teacher. Then all the scores are counted manually and aggregated on a form (the electoral return) that is submitted to a central location. More often than not, this process can take up until late night to complete.
Many things can go wrong during this tedious, manual process. Fatigue and distraction can cause ballot counters to make mistakes. Worse, a malicious person could intentionally announce the wrong name or award a vote to a different person. The election return — a document that is less open to scrutiny — can be intercepted and altered. Or as has happened lately, ballot boxes can be stolen or the precinct itself burned to the ground. In Pampanga where ex-priest Eddie Panlilio is currently leading, the slow count gives more opportunity for malicious elements to disrupt the vote. If we were casting digital votes, our ballots would have been counted by the time we reached home, shrinking the window of opportunity for fraud.
Smaller Window for Fraud
We know many politicians resort to dirty tricks to cheat the vote. But arguing against computerization because there are cheats is like arguing against the Internet because it has porn. Both problems exist outside of the technology and cannot be used as arguments to suppress the technology itself. In fact, a digital system will give less opportunity for fraud.
To improve integrity and minimize the risk of fraud, both low-tech and hi-tech elections use the same basic criteria: (1) make the process as transparent as possible, allowing anyone to follow and check each step, and (2) easily verify that the steps have not been compromised. Both criteria are easier to fulfill with a computerized system rather than our primitive one.
Recall the cases where Senators Miriam Defensor Santiago and Loren Legarda questioned the electoral results. The only way to verify the result was to audit the trail — go back through the process and check each step, reviewing all the returns and counter-checking them against the original ballots. On the local level, double-checking or recounting is daunting. At the national level, it will be horrendously expensive, as both Santiago and Legarda will probably attest.
We could speed up the manual audit process by employing as many people as possible, say, 1,000. Each of these auditors can sift through the data, review the calculations, and form their own conclusions. But that would mean reproducing 1,000 copies of electoral returns and ballots. And, as we all know, physical reproductions tend to lose a lot of information available from the originals. Some accredited pollwatching groups, in fact, are now complaining of having been handed copies that are practically blank sheets.
In contrast, in an electronic process, computerized ballots and returns can be embedded with encryption keys that give off a warning signal when they have been compromised. The Comelec could also opt to publish the process on the Web. Citizens could then visit the site to independently check the results. They could review electoral returns in their precinct and even their own ballot (by entering a personally registered password).
Imagine the possibilities that this transparent, electronic system would allow us:
Email us your comments about this article, or post them in our blog.