[The author, Al S. Vitangcol 3rd, is a lawyer, a registered engineer, and the Philippines’ first EC-Council certified Computer Hacking Forensic Investigator (CHFI). He holds a masteral degree in Computer Science and was designated head of the Joint Forensic Team that investigated the 60 PCOS machines that were found in a house in Antipolo City during the 2010 national and local elections.]
First of three parts
SIX years have passed since we first experienced voting using an Automated Election System (AES). It started in 2010 when the Commission on Elections (Comelec) leased Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines for the first ever automated national and local elections. Now the Comelec is again leasing thousands of Vote Counting Machines (VCM) for the May 9, 2016 elections.
A lot of individuals – including Information Technology (IT) experts or AES experts – have questioned the integrity and vulnerability of the AES. Some quarters even claimed that electoral fraud attended the 2010 national elections and the 2013 midterm elections. Can electoral fraud happen in an automated election?
Let us define things first. Electronic voting is a general term encompassing several different types of voting, embracing both electronic means of casting a vote and electronic means of counting votes. It can also involve transmission of ballots and votes via computer networks, public telecommunications infrastructure, or the Internet. The Philippines’ AES falls within the category of “document ballot voting
System,” where paper ballot sheets could me marked by hand, but counted electronically, through an optical scanning system.
By international standards, any electronic voting technology should speed up the counting of ballots and should provide improved accessibility for disabled voters. Our current AES miserably fails in the latter standard.
One of the basic democratic principles of elections is “voting in secret and counting in public.” The use of the PCOS machine, without a voter’s receipt at that, in a post-voting counting, negates the second principle. The printing of a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) in the soon-to-be-used VCM at least ensures the “counting in public” at the precinct level – but not at the subsequent levels. This will be discussed in Part 3 of this series.
What is electoral fraud?
It is illegal interference with the process of an election, consisting of acts of fraud, which affect vote counts. Technically it covers only those acts, which are illegal, but it is sometimes used to describe acts, which although legal, are considered morally unacceptable, outside the spirit of electoral laws, and in violation of the principles of democracy.
Electoral fraud can be committed either electronically or non-electronically.
The simplest forms of electoral fraud that can happen in the current AES are (1.) disenfranchisement of voters, (2.) misleading or confusing ballot design, (3.) vote shaving, (4.) vote padding, and (5.) tampering with election results.
Of course, there are still other highly technical means, which are electronic in nature, by which fraud can be committed. This will be discussed in Part 2 of this series.
Disenfranchisement of voters
Disenfranchisement is the “intentional” or “accidental” act of making it difficult or impossible for a legitimate voter to cast a vote. Disenfranchisement can be partial or total. Total disenfranchisement pertains to a whole precinct not being able to vote. Partial disenfranchisement, or selective disenfranchisement, pertains to specific legitimate voters failing to cast a vote.
Total disenfranchisement can be achieved by a large scale invalidation of ballots through misdelivery of the counting machines and official ballots. Considering that the VCMs and the ballots are both precinct specific, a simple act of switching machines (or ballots), deliberate or otherwise, can result in massive disenfranchisement of voters.
Partial disenfranchisement is achieved by giving a particular voter a defective official ballot, thereby making the VCM reject that voter’s ballot. Unknown to the voter, an official ballot may be pre-shaded in any of the elective positions in order to achieve overvoting for that elective post. The VCM is designed not to count overvoted positions. For example, if you do not want a voter’s Vice-Presidential vote to be counted, all you have to do is to inconspicuously pre-shade any candidate within the Vice-President portion of the ballot. The vote will only be counted if the voter shades the pre-shaded oval.
The official ballot contains a number of bar codes/line markings appearing in all its four edges. These markings are used to match the ballot contents, on a one-to-one correspondence, to the pre-programmed configuration of the VCM. Any mismatch of these markings will result in the VCM rejecting the said ballot. A scrupulous person, a fraud operator, simply has to tamper with any of these markings and the ballot would be rejected by the VCM. A bar code can be tampered with by merely putting a miniscule mark, an ink blot, or a tiny piece of dirt, in any of the tiny spaces separating the markings. This can also be accomplished by making a tiny tear on, or even crumpling, any of the line markings.
The Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) were given the discretion whether or not to replace a defective or rejected ballot. Early voters can deliberately make their ballots defective so that it can be replaced. However, since each precinct has a limited supply of official ballots, a substantial replacement of “defective” or “rejected” ballots can result in a partial disenfranchisement.
Misleading or confusing ballot design
The design and features of official ballot papers may be used to encourage (or discourage) votes for a particular party or candidate. It may also confuse voters into voting for a different candidate. Poor or misleading design is not usually illegal and therefore not technically an election fraud, but can subvert the principles of democracy.
The “horizontal” design of the ballot, particularly for that of the President, is of special interest. In a tight election race, a “biased” ballot design can spell the difference between winning and losing for a candidate. The current “horizontal” ballot design could have been redesigned into a “vertical” one, as illustrated below, to avoid confusion (see discussion on “accidental” dagdag-bawas).
The official ballot, lengthy at that, and printed with a small sized font, using the English language, is definitely not voter friendly. The font size is too small for vision impaired citizens, particularly senior citizens. The predominant use of the English language in the ballot is another issue. Based on foreign studies, the same effect, as in misleading or confusing ballot design, is observed when a large proportion of voters have limited literacy in the language used on the ballot paper.
Vote shaving/vote padding
Vote shaving, or vote padding, to favor a certain candidate or party, can be perpetuated even with the AES in place.
Vote shaving can be achieved by resorting to partial disenfranchisement schemes as discussed above. An electoral fraudster, in connivance with the BEI, or through sheer force or intimidation, can effectively shave the votes of a rival candidate by employing any of the disenfranchisement tricks on the rival candidate’s known supporters.
For example, a local mayoralty candidate, through his operators, can pre-shade the ballot portion for the position of Mayor and hand the same to the rival’s supporters. Thus, the rival supporters’ votes would not be counted by the VCM due to overvoting. The voter may not notice that one of his votes was not counted. If he does, he can ask for a replacement ballot and the same thing will happen – until there are no more replacement ballots.
Vote shaving and vote padding can also be perpetuated by a misleading or confusing ballot design. The current official ballot is susceptible to this “accidental” dagdag-bawas idea. This is made clearer by an illustrative example.
Let us assume that an uninitiated voter is voting for DUTERTE for President. With the current “horizontal” list, an “AES uneducated” voter might think that the oval appearing after DUTERTE’s name is the appropriate place to mark his vote for DUTERTE. The voter would then be marking the oval between DUTERTE and ROXAS. Hence, a vote for DUTERTE is effectively shaved and added to ROXAS.
The same might be true for the rest of the other candidates. A vote for CAYETANO might be inadvertently shaded as vote for HONASAN.
Nevertheless, these things could have been avoided had the Comelec adopted the “vertical” ballot design. Losing candidates may likewise question the Comelec in the future as to why the words “DAANG MATUWID” is included in the names of ROXAS and ROBREDO.
Another point is the directive for voting Senators. It says there “Vote for 12.” In 2010, the official ballot stated “Vote for not more than 12.” The voters now might have the impression that they should vote for exactly 12 senators – even if they don’t want to.
Tampering with election results is normally done through electronic means. This will be discussed in Part 2 which will be published tomorrow.