THE Election Automation Law, Republic Act No. 8436 (RA8436) as amended by Republic Act No. 9369, provides for a set of minimum system capabilities, which includes, among others, a voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) or simply a voter receipt.
The printing of the VVPAT is a transparency feature designed to let the voter know that the machine has accurately assessed the marks on his ballot. Recording and counting of votes are done inside the machine and nobody sees how the voter’s selections are recorded and counted.
The Supreme Court found that the VVPAT as a feature is a mandatory requirement defined in RA8436 and ordered the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to enable the VVPAT printing feature.
In its preparations, the Comelec had earlier on been demonstrating two features of the new model of the PCOS, now renamed the VCM or vote counting machines: (1) the on-screen verification feature and (2) the printing of the VVPAT which gave groups that have been pushing for the implementation of the VVPAT printing the hope that the Comelec would activate the feature for the 2016 National Elections. In its demonstrations, it showed that the on-screen verification provides feedback to the voter on the quality of marks on his ballot after his ballot has been scanned, that is, if the machine found any ambiguous mark and where such ambiguous mark were found.
What is an ambiguous mark? The Comelec and Smartmatic have defined thresholds for the types of mark that may be executed by the voter. If the mark fills only 20 percent or less of the area within the any oval on the ballot, that will be considered by the machine to be a non-mark and, therefore, will not be counted as a vote. If a mark fills 21 percent to 50 percent of the oval, then the mark will be considered an ambiguous mark. The machine will neither ignore the mark nor count the mark as a vote. If a mark fills 51percent to 100 percent of the oval, then the machine will consider such mark a valid mark and consider the mark as a vote.
In its demo of the on-screen verification, the voter had twenty seconds to react. Either the voter would press the green button on the machine to cast his ballot or press the red button to retrieve his ballot to make the necessary corrections on the marks that may have been found by the machine as ambiguous. At the expiration of the twenty second period, if the voter has not taken any action, the ballot will be automatically cast.
In 2010, the voter had four chances to feed his ballot into the PCOS. The machine, however, did not provide the voter any feedback as to why his ballot was being rejected and what it found wrong with the ballot; but the voter was advised by the Board of Election Inspectors to check his marks on the ballot, in case he or she had not fully shaded any oval beside the name of his chosen candidates. If the PCOS still did not accept the ballot on the fourth try, then the ballot cou;d no longer be fed into the machine and the ballot would be placed in a folder marked “Rejected Ballots.” The voter would no longer be issued with a replacement ballot.
During the oral arguments at the Supreme Court, the Comelec said that the on-screen verification feature is tightly coupled with the VVPAT printing. That is, on-screen verification feature cannot be turned off if the VVPAT printing is turned on. Precisely, the on-screen verification was designed to provide feedback to the voter on the quality of marks, that is, if at least a mark does not pass the threshold for ambiguous marks.
But in complying with the order of the Supreme Court, the poll body has effectively deactivated the on-screen verification feature by setting the display time to one second! Even highly educated voters or speed readers will not have time to read what is displayed on-screen and react. After the expiration of the one second period, the voter’s ballot will be automatically cast and the VVPAT printed.
The Comelec also changed the mark thresholds: 20 percent or less is a non-mark, 21percent to 30 percent an ambiguous mark, and 31percent or higher will be valid vote mark.
Even with the reduction of the defined threshold for ambiguous marks, there exists the likelihood that the machine will find ambiguous marks but the voter will no longer be informed of such fact. In the event that the VVPAT does not accurately reflect the choices he made as marked on his ballot, all that the voter can do is report the matter to the Board of Election Inspectors who is required to record the matter in the minutes of the voting.
This time around, the voter will be deprived of the opportunity to make corrections on his ballot on election day 2016.