Tag Archives: electronic voting

Smartmatic machines are not so smart after all

We are spending P7.2 billion to lease these “smart automatic” machines. It turns out that they are not so smart after all. In fact, they seem downright stupid.

They can’t recognize a check mark or a cross. They can’t recognize ballpen or pencil marks. They need full, dark shadings to be convinced that you want to mark an oval. Isn’t that stupid?

When the security marks were misaligned by a mere one to two millimeters, the machines had trouble finding them. They were making so many mistakes that Smartmatic decided to forget “smart automatic” and go back to manual instead. They will just give election inspectors ultraviolet lamps; the inspectors will shine the lamp on each ballot and decide after an ocular inspection if the ballot is authentic or not. Still better than a dumb machine that can’t find the security mark.

A few days before the May 10 elections, these “smart automatic” machines are supposed to be unsealed for a final test in the field by election inspectors. Reports are now flooding in that many can’t read some of the marks, and can’t count some of the votes. Read the reports:

For the sake of our elections, let us all hope and pray that these problems will be solved before May 10.

Four opportunities to check PCOS accuracy: all taken away by COMELEC

The Filipino voting public had four opportunities for checking the scanning accuracy of the PCOS machine, but the three were all taken away by COMELEC, while the fate of the fourth still hangs in the balance.

Acceptance testing by COMELEC

Everytime Smartmatic delivered a batch of machines, COMELEC should have tested the machines before accepting them, to screen out the lemons. After all, these machines were made in China in a hurry. But even if they were not. It is simple due diligence. The COMELEC specifications are clear in the contract, including the PCOS minimum accuracy rate of 99.995%, or a maximum error rate of .005%. Any machine that did not meet specs should have been returned for replacement. We lost this opportunity because the full results of the testing, if it was ever done by COMELEC at all, were not given to stakeholders like political parties, election watchdogs and the media.

Systest audit and source code review

One of the things Systest would have tested, because it is the heart of the ballot appreciation process, is the scanning accuracy of the PCOS. I had expected a certification from Systest that the PCOS, for instance, met all minimum functional requirements as specified in the Automated Election Law and the contract between COMELEC and Smartmatic. I had expected that the test procedures would be described in detail in the full report of Systest and the test results would be there too, for the scrutiny of all stakeholders. Finally, I had expected the Systest certifications and well as full report to be available to stakeholders like political parties, election watchdogs and the media. COMELEC claimed on Feb. 9 that Systest had finished its audit/review and given its certification, but released no proper Systest document or full report to back up its claim. We lost this opportunity because of the secrecy that surrounds the certifications and full report from Systest.

Voters verification that the PCOS correctly registered their choices

On election day itself, all voters would be in a position to check for themselves the accuracy of the PCOS, by observing whether their marks are properly interpreted by the machine. The PCOS was required by law to show voters their choices (that is, the names of those they voted for), so that they can verify if their choices were correctly registered on the machine. The PCOS, in fact, had this as a built-in feature, and it could show on its screen those choices. This was an excellect feature that empowered every voter to conduct a real-time audit of the accuracy of the machine. We lost this opportunity because COMELEC ordered Smartmatic to disable this feature.

Manual audit of the machine results

The ballots will be counted manually by an audit team, and this count compared with the machine count. Any discrepancy, after the manual count is double-checked, will mean an inaccurate scan by the PCOS, allowing us to actually measure its accuracy rate. We fear that this opportunity may be lost because COMELEC decided to conduct the manual audit of only 1.5% of precincts, and the machine winners may be proclaimed ation anyway, while the audit is still going on. If the machine winners are proclaimed while the audit is still going on, then the audit results won’t matter anymore. We all know how long election protests take to resolve, if they are ever resolved at all. Who would be interested in a futile exercise that is already moot and academic? The rush to proclaim within 48 hours (by May 13), is misplaced because the term of outgoing officials will end on June 30 yet. The manual audit can be given a June 22 deadline, the winners proclaimed on June 23, and still have one week to spare.

If 100% manual audit of UV marks is ok, why not 100% manual audit of ovals?

The question that bugs me is why would COMELEC plug every loophole to make sure that no test results from acceptance testing or the Systest audit/review can be used to question PCOS accuracy, that no inaccuracies are observable to voters on election day, and that when the inaccuracies are eventually discovered through a manual audit, it will be too late to correct them because the machine winners have been proclaimed.

When COMELEC found out that the ultraviolet security marks were misaligned, it ordered a 100% manual audit of every ballot before winners are proclaimed. COMELEC did so on its own, without any prodding.

If the ballot ovals are as misaligned as the ultraviolet security marks, by the same logic, the only solution is a 100% manual audit of every ballot before winners are proclaimed.

Updated HALAL analysis: automated election has 25% chance of success

I have updated our presentation regarding the chances of success of the May 10 automated elections. I have added details regarding the ballot printing problem, and added to the list of things the Comelec must do to improve the chances of success.

The updated presentation may be downloaded here:

halal-analysis-of-aes-risk-of-failure-as-of-March 23.

Despite Obama’s victory, problems with electronic voting machines should not be ignored

With Obama’s landslide victory over McCain in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections, I hope the problems of electronic voting will not be buried under the euphoria. U.S. media had been filled with all kinds of problems involving voting machines. These problems clearly indicated a trend of errors favoring McCain. There were so many reports in so many states that there seemed to be a machinery of cheating in place to make sure McCain would win.

Search the Web for “electronic voting machines in 2008 U.S. elections” and you will get these reports. Note that the search term given is completely neutral and does not include leading words like problem, error, failure and so forth. Yet, the bulk of the reports on the Internet are about problems associated with voting machines.

If we summarize the 2008 U.S. election experience from the perspective of clean and honest elections, this is how I’d put it: the threat of cheating came from those who controlled the electronic voting machines, and it was the massive turnout, the landslide for Obama, and the vigilance of U.S. election integrity activists which stopped the cheats from succeeding.

We were in a similar situation exactly ten years ago, in 1998, when the landslide victory of Joseph Estrada prevented any cheating effort by the administration party Lakas-NUCD although there were clear indications that the machinery to do so was in place.

We were not so lucky in 2004, when cheating was so rampant and brazen that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself was caught on tape micro-managing it. Yet, the whole system, including the business community, sections of the Church and even citizens’ watchdogs, colluded to cover up the cheating, probably because they thought “anyone but FPJ” would have been better.

I sure hope Philippine election authorities will get the correct lesson out of the U.S. 2008 experience.

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.

Back to school

I haven’t updated this blog since April for several reasons. I thought I could do some blogging while doing my research on automated elections and electronic voting machines last April and May at the University of Oxford Internet Institute (OII). But I only managed one short piece. I needed all the time I could spare for the research. (My final output: four working papers – check here — and two early drafts). When there was time to spare, the spare time wasn’t enough either for the OII library, Oxford’s Social Science Library, the museums of Oxford and London and other attractions. So blogging had to wait.

Deaths in the family. When I arrived on June 4, I went straight to the Lung Center, where my 91-year-old mother Anastasia was in the Intensive Care Unit, due to pneumonia. Unfortunately, she probably picked up drug-resistant varieties of the disease from the hospital itself. After a month in the hospital (we took her out of ICU so her children and grandchildren could spend more time with her), she succumbed from the disease. We buried her on July 1 beside my father, Pio, who died 10 years ago when he was 84. On their tombstones we put two epitaphs: “A principled man who led a simple life”, and “A devoted woman who lived to help others”. Both had enjoyed a full life. A few days before my mother passed away, a dear cousin, Bienvenido Verzola Jr., “Manong Tron” to us, and whom I considered an elder brother, also died from cancer. He was the incumbent mayor of his hometown, Luna, Apayao, and was well-loved by his constituents. He was buried July 2 in Luna.

I have also gone back to school. I enrolled in my old alma mater, the University of the Philippines, for an MA Economics course. Many have asked me, “why economics?”

Why, indeed? I had been studying the social impact of new information and communications technologies (ICTs) for decades. I had even written a book about this topic, Towards a Political Economy of Information (full text available here). In the mid-1990s I started work on environmental issues and, starting 2000, basically went on semi-retirement from ICT work to volunteer for farmers’ groups, I worked for years with the sustainable agriculture network Pabinhi and also became coordinator of SRI-Pilipinas, which promotes the System of Rice Intensification. I think I have found a conceptual thread that ties all of my work together. This is the phenomenon of abundance. I decided to go back to school to learn everything I can about abundance, and to distill my own insights about this phenomenon. More about abundance in future blogs.

At 55, I struggle with my courses: Statistics, Math and Microeconomics. My mind doesn’t absorb as fast or retain as much. But I take the courses very seriously, because they are immediately useful to me. The Stats course is important for our election audit work at Halalang Marangal. We have a standing proposal for the Comelec to use double-entry accounting in election tallies, and to conduct a post-election statistical audit to double-check the automated election results. The Math and Micro courses, I need for studying the political economy of abundance, a personal project I have began to embark on. The pace of the Math course (Econ 206) is blazingly fast. I try to study in advance, but each lecture leaves me feeling way behind. The textbook is not very useful for those who want to learn from the book. But I am gradually acquiring some tools for my study on abundance, so I am not complaining. When the semester is over, I will let you know how things turned out.

By the way, one of my election pieces (Automated elections: voting machines have made mistakes too) made it to the top ten downloads at the Social Science Research Network. Nice reward for the hard, hard work that went into that paper. My Oxford pieces were also cited in Dan Mariano’s July 23 Manila Times column entitled “From ‘Hello, Garci’ to ‘Hello, IT'”.

Finally, a pleasant surprise for me: former President Fidel V. Ramos cited my work on intellectual property rights (IPR) in his July 15 speech at the 17th Annual International Conference of the Asian Media Information and Communication Center. I like the part that he quoted: “Advanced countries think nothing of pirating our best scientists, engineers, technicians and other professionals. They also pirate our genetic resources.” He missed the best part though, where I said that advanced countries complain when we pirate their software, though we never take the original copy away, but they themselves pirate our best professionals, taking the original away and leaving nothing behind. You’ll find the full article here.

In the meantime, I think I can now spare an occasional hour, to keep this blog updated. Thank you all for your patience.

Oxford Visit

I am currently at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) in the UK doing research on election modernization (including automation). Hopefully, my research can help the Philippine government in making the right decisions as it tries to automate the August 2008 regional elections in Muslim Mindanao and the May 2010 presidential elections.

I made my first presentation last Wednesday, Apr. 23, before an audience of around 15 research fellows, a computer scientist and PhD students. I thought the reactions to my presentation, which was about the use of double-entry accounting for election tallies were positive. More later about this.

An interesting experience I went through for this trip was getting a room to stay in. Because I was sponsored by the OII, they were going to pay for my board and lodging expenses, but I had to find a room myself. Since I got my visa only on the same day I was scheduled to leave (I got the call to pick it up the day before), everything was a mad rush on the day of my departure. I did manage to send an email the day before and make a reservation a room at the Exeter College Lodging House, for which I was relieved I got a confirmation, but only for four days.

My first four days at Oxford passed very quickly indeed, what with the presentation I was scheduled to make on the third day. As soon as the presentation was over, I started making calls (and sending emails) about rooms for rent (to let, as they say here). I didn’t realize I was very lucky to get a room for those first four days — most rooms within my budget were taken quickly and when I identified a prospect, I had to find out where it was, how far, did a bus go there, and I had to make a visit of course. I was again lucky to find two prospects, one in Rose Hill (about 360 PST per month) and a nearer one off Iffley Road at 450 PST. I visited the nearer place first, but got a feeling from one tenant that I was unwelcome because two of us would be staying in the double room (i.e., a room with a double bed) while they were only one per room. The Rose Hill one was friendlier (after an initial ‘Go away!’ when a tenant thought I was a salesman!). So, I made arrangements with the landlord (again, lots of back and forth calls, because I didn’t have the cash and the check was to be paid by OII). But it all worked out in the end.

On Monday, Apr. 28, I will move into the room I’ll be using for the rest of my stay. My wife Flora joins me May 18.

Good start.