Tag Archives: problems

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.

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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.