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.