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Monitoring the AES

 

GUS LAGMAN

IN December 2018, Namfrel petitioned the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for accreditation as a “citizen’s arm,” specifically requesting permission on three items: 1) to be allowed to monitor Comelec’s implementation of the automated election system (AES); 2) to have access to data that would allow them to observe Comelec’s “random manual audit” (RMA) of the automated vote-counting; and 3) to allow them access to complete election data for posting in Namfrel’s Open Election Data website.

Item 1: The monitoring of Comelec’s AES implementation does not really need accreditation from this government agency, as any citizen is free, anyway, to monitor the implementation of the AES. Nonetheless, Namfrel thought it better to include that in the petition, so its volunteers’ presence inside the precincts would become official and would carry some authority.



Item 2: Access to data for use during the observation of the RMA would allow Namfrel to conduct its functions effectively. Without that access to data, it would be difficult for Namfrel to verify if the random manual audit is being performed properly and that the RMA data being used are truly from those in the official database.

Item 3: Namfrel plans to publish on its website the complete election data. That would give the public not only information about the results, but also data that they might need for their own analysis. This request is therefore necessary, so that the data published in its website is always the most current version.

In the interest of transparency, I would like to disclose that I am the current Namfrel chairman.

More than four months after the petition was submitted, Comelec finally responded by granting Namfrel 1) access to data that would allow it to perform an RMA; and 2) access to the 27th copy of the election returns (ER).

The first one is of course welcome as it granted Namfrel the second of the three requested items. On the other hand, the 27th copy (printed copy) of the ER that it is willing to provide, is almost useless as it would mean having to first encode its contents before any analysis could be done. Why not just give Namfrel access to the contents of the transparency server that will be installed at the Pope Pius Center? It would hardly be any bother to the Comelec. And after all, other NGOs are apparently being given such access.

And Namfrel is not just any newbie NGO. It started its volunteer work as early as the 1984 Batasan elections. In fact, it is recognized as the first and most-experienced election NGO in the world. Dozens of other countries have copied what Namfrel started, in terms of citizens’ poll watching and organizing parallel counts.

What we therefore find difficult to understand is why Comelec seems to want to make things difficult for Namfrel. Our objectives are parallel to, or the same as that of, the commission’s. Those objectives are, “accurate and credible elections.” We were hoping that they would appreciate the fact that it is also our intention to help make the official Comelec results more credible to the voting public, even as we also watch out for defects — and possible rigging of the results — in the system and its implementation.

Many articles have been written by those of us in the IT community, many meetings, official, as well as casual ones, have been held among us, about how reliable, how credible, the results are, when vote-counting is automated. All these doubts and apprehensions would have been unnecessary had Comelec not automated the vote-counting at the precincts. The truth is that many countries have already discarded automated vote-counting because the process is not transparent and is not observable by the voters.

What would it have cost us had we counted the votes manually? Maybe 12 to 24 hours more work at the precincts. But it would have saved us billions of pesos in less expensive equipment (just ordinary PCs and laptops) that can be bought from out of the shelves of local vendors. And then, because these are equipment that could be sold, even at a huge discount, to the likes of the Department of Education after each election, some cost recovery would be possible. Or, they could simply be donated to this government department for use by the teachers and/or students.

To be sure, automation could already be employed while the votes are being counted manually. Or, at least, immediately after. That way, transmission of the results, from precincts to canvassing points, can be done electronically and the three levels of canvassing could be fully automated.

I sincerely wish the commission would seriously consider this alternative system for future elections, because it is truly a much better solution, in many ways, than the present one. It would be such a pity if it is not given a chance to prove itself.

 

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