January-June 2004
Special Election Issue

Voting without much buzz

SO MUCH for cutting-edge technology in Halalan 2004. For the more important aspects of the electoral process — from voter registration, voting, vote counting, to canvassing-touches of modernity have been as elusive as replies with substance from candidates. Yet for the most part, the problem stems not from a lack of available technological solutions.

To begin with, there is Mega Data Corp.’s Botong Pinoy, a comprehensive computerized voting system encompassing the three major phases of the elections: registration, voting, and tabulation. Pilot tested in council elections in universities, it has proven to be an effective safeguard against fraud and manipulations like dagdag-bawas. Those who have tried it attest to its impressive performance.

The system is an offshoot of a 1998 project where Mega Data teamed up with Polistrat International and the National Press Club to computerize the election returns. But the project was implemented only in the first district of Makati for lack of manpower.

For the registration, Botong Pinoy recommends facial and fingerprint biometrics. Voting would be done using touchscreens by pointing at the face or name of candidates while being guided by voice prompts. In the tabulation phase, security features as electronic keys and an encryption method similar to online credit card transactions will guard against tampering of the votes. Results can be determined within a day.

In 1993, though, Operation MODEX (Modernizing Philippine Elections) firmed up the direction that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) modernization initiative would take. At the time, possible technologies considered appropriate to the local setting included the optical mark sense and punchcard systems. The Comelec team eventually recommended the former — involving an automated vote-counting machine that scans paper ballots with its built-in optical mark reader — as best suited for Philippine elections. The system is much like marking ovals corresponding to a student’s answer on the National Secondary Aptitude Test or NSAT answer sheet.

This preference for the mark sense system, which is stipulated in the automation law, outrightly disqualified Botong Pinoy from participating in the bidding. Says Jasper Soon, Mega Data’s business development officer: “Even the Comelec officials were impressed by our system. But since they are bound by law to use the system until 2116, we cannot do anything about it. We will just have to try to market this in the U.S.”

The first time a computerized election system was used in official polls in this country was in September 1996, during the elections in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Forty-two ballot-counting machines were deployed to get the job done. The Comelec was able to proclaim the winning candidates for district-level, regional assemblymen only after 48 hours. The winning governor and vice governor were proclaimed after 72 hours.

As early as the May 1998 elections, the Election Automation Act of 1997 called for the use of ballot-counting machines to tally votes at the precinct level and to consolidate the municipal, provincial and national results. In 2001, voters were supposed to use ballots with preprinted names of candidates instead of writing them down one by one.

None of these ever happened. In the 1998 polls, the automated system was used only in the ARMM provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. Even then, glitches in defective printed ballots that the machine failed to read marred the elections in five municipalities in Sulu.

This May, chances are vote-counting in most places will again revert to manual mode after the Supreme Court recently voided the P1.3-billion contract won by a Korean firm-led consortium that would have allowed the use of automated counting machines. The court decision zeroed in on the irregularities that attended the bidding process, which favored MegaPacifc eSolutions.

A year earlier, the Supreme Court had similarly struck down the Comelec’s controversial tamper-proof voters’ ID system, or the Voter Registration and Identification System (VRIS), for an anomalous bidding process that awarded the contract to Photokina Marketing Corp.

The Comelec did manage to develop and use what it called the FindPrecinct.com in the May 2001 polls to assist voters from Metro Manila and key urban areas in locating their voting precincts. The poll body is said to be contemplating a revival of the service using SMS this time. The Comelec has also announced that the ARMM, as well as Manila and Taguig, will have automated elections despite the Supreme Court ruling voiding the MegaPacific contract. — Alecks P. Pabico