Electronic voting, electronic cheating?

When I was awarded a six-week research fellowship by the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute, I chose to focus on electronic voting. (The term more commonly used in the Philippines is “automated elections”.) My research confirmed my initial suspicion that electronic voting and counting machines bring their own set of troubles. I realized that the COMELEC, as well as the media and the public, should therefore take extra steps to ensure the integrity of automated elections.

One of the things I did was review the experiences of countries that had earlier automated their elections. And I found well-documented cases of problems, errors and failures (download: Automated elections: voting machines have made mistakes too).

These cases included: uninitialized machines, which made ballot stuffing possible; votes not counted or lost; candidates’ votes reversed; contests not counted; ballots not counted; the wrong winner comes out; allowing voting more than once; vote totals that exceed the number of registered voters; negatives votes; unauthorized software replacement; and other problems.

I traced these troubles to deep-seated causes that were inherent with complex technologies, such as: software bugs, which are always present even in high-quality software; hardware problems such as miscalibration; environmental stresses that may worsen hardware problems; poor or flawed design; human errors; and malicious tampering. Since these factors were inherent with complex technologies, we can expect the electronic machine troubles to persist.

In my research, I also found out that insoluble problems associated with direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines have already led to their phase out in some states of the U.S.

I also compiled typical costs for DREs and optical scanners (download: The cost of automating elections), and found that DRE technology was much more expensive to implement that optical scanning. (However, because an increasing number of states are junking DREs, their prices are expected to go down, as they are dumped into the Third World.)

Halalang Marangal (HALAL), an election monitoring group that I work with, has already submitted two specific recommendations to the COMELEC as a result of my Oxford study:

1. Use double-entry accounting methods in election tabulation (download: Double-entry accounting in election tallies)to minimize the clerical errors that plague the COMELEC’s current single-entry tabulation system; and

2. Conduct a transparent post-election audit of machine results (download: Post-election audits using statistical sampling), by manually counting ballots from a random sample of precincts to confirm if the electronic voting machines are giving us correct results.

Given the reported problems in the August 2008 ARMM elections, which seem to confirm these troubles with automated elections and voting machines, I again strongly urge the COMELEC to heed our warnings and suggestions.

9 Comments

  1. Posted November 5, 2008 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    The electronic system here in Brazil is really good. There are really small complaints about it, even by the losers! Here was the first country in world using this electronic voting… we vote without lines and we know the results within 1 day , for nation-wide elections… And I doubt this system is mor fraudlent than manual counting… what do you think? thanks!

  2. Roberto Verzola
    Posted November 5, 2008 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    I do not know enough yet of the specific details of the Brazilian voting machine. From what I know, it is a direct recording electronic (DRE) type, is this correct?

    One question always asked about DREs is: after you cast your vote, how sure are you that the machine recorded it accurately in its memory?

    My other answer is this: Manual election systems are implemented with very little cheating in some countries (like the U.K.) and a lot of cheating in others (like the Philippines). Automated election systems are also implemented with possibly very little cheating in some countries (like Brazil) and a lot of cheating in others (like the U.S. and, again, the Philippines). Therefore, it seems to me that automation may or may not eliminate cheating. What I’m sure it will do is make some vendors and bureaucrats very rich.

    This, to me, is the real driving force behind automation.

    There are many low-cost ways of controlling, minimizing and eliminating election cheating, but bureaucrats are usually not interested because low cost means low commissions.

  3. Posted November 7, 2008 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the research and for posting!

    just a suggestion:

    you may want to lead a campaign regarding more cleaner elections in the Philippines, using your researches;

    sana isang project campaign bilang paghahanda sa 2010 elections!

    Salamat at mabuhay ka!

  4. Roberto Verzola
    Posted November 7, 2008 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    I have been involved in a clean elections campaign since 2004 and with Halalang Marangal since 2006. Search the Web for “Halalang Marangal” to see what we’ve done in the past.

    Thanks for the greetings.

  5. Posted November 17, 2008 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    will automated voting machines really help enhance the intergrity of our elections, robert? since most of the election fraud perpetrated here are inside jobs.

    and aren’t paper ballots safer and less easy to fake? mahirap dayain ang manual dahil “matrabaho” at kailangan ng “manpower”, hindi ba? especially kung balak mong mandaya on a massive scale (ie presidential elections). dahil kung maraming COMELEC operators at military officials ang “nagtratrabaho” dito, there’s a chance na “hindi maganda” o consistent ang “pagkakagawa” ng mga fake COCs, katulad nung inamin ng isang heneral sa “hello garci” tapes.

    the problem is not paper ballots. the problem is that we did not punish the cheaters when they were caught red handed.

    automated systems only makes cheating easier, and harder for independent watchdogs to detect, especially if cheating is done FROM WITHIN by this COMELEC, an organization that has done nothing to purge it’s ranks of garci operators dating back 2004.

    if people are worried about the slow count, blame the idiots who created the 1987 constitution for letting us vote nationally for 12 senators at a time.

  6. Posted November 17, 2008 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    so, to sum it up, i’d rather get the count right than get it fast.

    and yes, I support us using automated counting machines in the future, but not before the COMELEC does a thorough investigation into the 2004 fiasco and does some serious housecleaning of its own.

    else, the machines will only become tools used by our election officials to steal our voters blind of their choice.

  7. Roberto Verzola
    Posted November 18, 2008 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    John, I agree with you completely. I’ve wrote a piece about it in 2006 which just about says the same thing: “Automating the counting of votes can make it worse”. You’ll find the piece here: http://www.geocities.com/no.cheats/automation.html

  8. Posted January 11, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Using the Automated System in the 2010 Philippine Elections is a big step towards change in the Electoral System but it is never an assurance that it will eliminate cheating in the coming election.
    -Still hoping for a clean and honest election.

  9. Roberto Verzola
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    I don’t believe in change for change’s sake.

    If it will not eliminate cheating, what’s the point in spending more than P7 billion on it, especially if it has the potential of making cheating worse? There’s are much cheaper ways of reducing cheating, and our group has submitted several papers to the COMELEC about this, but they were not interested.

    For instance, we could shift to the new ballots, but still count manually, and use the counting machines only to audit the results where these are under protest. In every election, in the majority of contests, manual counting is done honestly and the results are not under protest. With this approach, we would not need so many machines. We also suggested to the COMELEC to use the double-entry accounting system (universally used in business) to tally votes (currently, they use the antiquated single-entry system), which would work under manual or automated conditions and cost very little but would catch most of the unintentional clerical errors. Again, the COMELEC was not interested.

    Their minds were already fixed on full automation in one go — no piloting, no parallel runs. It is a very risky way of implementing an IT project.

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