The Random Manual Audit Committee (RMAC) states in a footnote in its RMA Report on the 2016 national and local elections that “In 2010 and 2013, the assumption was the machines are 99.0 percent accurate. The RMAC reported an actual accuracy rate of 99.70 percent and 99.97 percent, respectively. Gaining more confidence in the machines from the previous results, a higher accuracy rate of at least 99.6 percent was applied in 2016.”
This statement should not be taken as an indication that the use of the PCOS/VCM establishes a norm on use of voting and electronic vote counting technology in Philippine elections. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) should not now lie in comfort that PCOS/VCM has been shown to perform better than the assumed accuracy rates and, therefore, will be used again in future elections. A word of warning: the assumed accuracy rates are without basis. The RMAC of 2010 and 2013 arbitrarily set aside the 99.995 percent accuracy rate set by the poll body in its Terms of Reference for the 2010 National and Local Elections Automation Project stating that “Based on ninety-nine percent (99 percent) accuracy rate, the allowable margin of variance was set at one percent (equivalent to less than 10 votes’ difference in absolute value for every 1,000 valid votes counted).” The RMAC of 2010 and 2013 reasoned that it was impossible to meet the 99.995 percent accuracy rating because the human appreciation of vote marks differed from the machine appreciation. The RMAC of 2016 based its assumption on the baseless assumptions of the RMAC of 2010 and 2013.
There are lessons to be learned from use of the technology and the manner on how the automated election system was implemented, operated, and managed in the last three elections. The lessons learned, positive or negative, should be taken up in Comelec-led discussions with election monitoring organizations, civil society organizations, information technology experts, academe, political parties, and other interested groups with the goal of seeking alternatives and make future elections more participative, inclusive, and convenient.
With the growing pervasiveness of the Internet and social media and the ubiquity of electronic devices, it is without doubt that the Philippine electorate is getting more comfortable with the use of technology. But there are still vulnerable sectors in society that have yet to develop the capacity to ride the growing technology bandwagon and there are still areas in the country that are either under-served or unserved technologically. This limitation, however, should not stop the poll body from reaching out to stakeholders either in face to face forums or via social media networks.
The Election Automation Law, Republic Act No. 8436 as amended by Republic Act No. 9369, does not rule out the use of other technologies for our elections. Neither does the law rule out Filipino-developed technologies and systems. In exploring alternative and more appropriate systems, the poll body should look into other election-related matters, a few of which are:
• The 2016 election data shows that there are 189 clustered precincts with one hundred voters or less. Certainly this fact indicates a higher cost per voter compared to clustered precincts with 200 voters or greater. Shouldn’t the Comelec consider a more appropriate system for voting and vote counting that is more cost effective?
• The 2016 election data also shows that the overseas absentee voting turnout was at only 37.177 percent. How can participation be enhanced? Perhaps the poll body should start studying the possibility of using mail voting and Internet voting.
• Voting can also be made more convenient. Before election day, a massive migration of voters happens. The Comelec should perhaps consider a system that enables voters who would like to vote for candidates in their locality without having to go home to their respective hometowns. Certainly, there are technology solutions that can make this happen.
• Should the Comelec stick it out with full automation from voting to consolidation of results? Should it keep the ladderized system of vote consolidation?
• Technology does not always offer a solution. Transparency of the vote count has been lost, shielded from public view within the PCOS/VCM. A return to a manual system is a challenging prospect but should still be explored because it has its own inherent merits.
Here’s a quote from a Facebook post of Commissioner Luie Tito Guia: “As election workers we should always be open to new perspectives and paradigms to make sure that we are not blinded by being comfortable with the way things are. The signs of the times should allow us to awaken and realize that maybe, just maybe, we have to put more of our focus on ensuring the right of ALL citizens to meaningful political participation. Inclusiveness of the electoral process, more than the lure of going high tech, should be at the core of COMELEC’s mission as an institution of democracy. This is how we can serve the people better.”
Hopefully, the words of Commissioner Guia set the tone as the Comelec prepares for the 2019 elections.