MODERATORS set the tone of the Fight for Filipino Ingenuity towards Trusted Elections forum held last June 26, 2018 by reading from Comelec Advisory Council (CAC) Resolution No. 2017-002 dated August 4, 2017 with the title “Technology Recommendations on the 2019 National and Local Elections.” The CAC recommended that the Comelec provide opportunities for local election system developers and providers by addressing Section 12 of the Election Automation Law, or Republic Act 8436, as amended by Republic Act 9369. The said section of the law reads in part: “With respect to the May 10, 2010 election and succeeding electoral exercises, the system procured must have demonstrated capability and been successfully used in a prior electoral exercise here or abroad.”

The automated election system (AES) used in the 2010, 2013 and 2016 elections was provided by Smartmatic, a foreign election technology provider, and its local partner, TIM. The same AES will highly likely be used in the 2019 midterm elections.

Presenters underscored the defects and deficiencies of the AES observed in the last three elections as well the AES used in the 2008 ARMM elections, including the questionable performance and participation of the foreign provider in the operations of the AES.

But how can local information technology industry players be encouraged to develop homegrown election technologies when the poll body itself sees Section 12 of RA 8436, as amended, as a bar?

In 2011, former Commissioner Gus Lagman had Comelec’s information technology department develop a canvassing and consolidation system at a cost of about P600,000. But the Comelec en banc thumbed down its use because it had not been used in a prior electoral exercise.

Apparently, the reference to electoral exercises does not only refer to exercises that involve electing executives into public office, but any electoral exercise, including student council or stockholder elections. Yet, Section 12 of RA8436, as amended, was strictly construed to refer only to elections of public national and local officials.

Automation of elections is not a silver bullet solution to what ails manual elections. Experience has shown that it only created new ones. Former commissioner Lagman always points out that anytime vote counting is automated, transparency is lost. Nobody sees how the machine counts the votes. It has been a black box voting in the four electoral exercises.

An alternative presented during the forum was the Automated Election System with Enhanced Transparency and Accuracy (AES-ETA) which features manual voting and counting as well as electronic transmission of results. The AES-ETA offers transparency of the vote count. Computer-assisted counting is done with a projector that displays the progress of the count. The computer-assisted count is done in parallel with the manual count. Accuracy can be assured with the embedded process of verification. Parties supporting the AES-ETA, assailed by some critics who are not even information technology practitioners as a mongrel solution, recognize that the return to manual counting is like swimming against the tide but they continue to push for a transparent AES solution.

Another alternative solution presented was a tablet-based voting system. Called MoSES, or Mobile Secure Election System, it generates a ballot which a voter can review before casting his/her vote. While counting is automated, partial transparency is achieved by displaying the progress of vote count. Accuracy of the vote count can be assured only if the counting process is programmed to faithfully adhere to the counting rules.

It has been shown, however, that voting machines can be easily manipulated. This was the issue raised by political scientist Joachim Wiesner and son, Ulrich Wiesner, before the German Supreme Court. They also argued that a voter does not see what happens to his vote inside the computer. Voters simply placed their blind faith in the technology. Agreeing with the Wiesner father-and-son tandem, the German Supreme Court declared electronic voting machines unconstitutional.

Other countries, too, have junked AES and gone back to manual elections. Their election processes, however, are a lot simpler than Philippine elections.

The problem with electronic transmission of vote counts has to be resolved. Only about 70 percent of the country is covered by the telecommunication infrastructure. To cover the unserved areas, satellite broadband global access network terminals were used in the last three elections. Quality of transmission services, however, is another matter. In the 2016 NLE, for instance, about 3.5 percent of clustered precincts failed to transmit vote counts to their intended destinations. The untransmitted clustered precinct results represent about 1.8 million votes. How these votes were consolidated at each level of the counting and consolidation remains a mystery to this day. Non-transmission of results were not only in remote areas. In 2013, almost 40 percent of clustered precincts in San Pedro, Laguna failed to transmit. Taguig and Pateros in Metro Manila had their own blind spots.

Transparency and security of the results needs to be addressed as well.

The clustered precinct-level results are supposed to be posted on a publicly accessible website. It was not easy to look for clustered precinct-level counts. The results website was deactivated shortly after the 2016 elections.

For securing vote count results, the emergent technology of Blockchain is being touted as a solution. Blockchain technology, however, has not been shown to provide transparency and security of the vote-counting process.

The search for a homegrown AES as an alternative to the one used in the past elections continues. There may be technology solutions for ensuring accuracy, integrity, and security of the election results. Full transparency of the vote counting process, however, is non-negotiable.