Monday, September 14, 2009

The blindside of automating the 2010 Philippine elections

What concerns me most is that voters might commit a high number of mistakes in filling up the ballot and a good number of votes would not be counted. If voter error is too high, it could negate the benefits of automating the count.

In the 2004 presidential elections, 36.6 million voters came out to vote or 84 percent of 43.5 million registered1. However, there were only 32.2 million votes cast for all the five candidates for president, or 88 percent. There is no accounting by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) of the 4.3 million vote difference, or 12 percent (36.6 million less 32.3 million).

There are a number of explanations to this. Not all voters really vote for a president. Some votes could have been invalidated because a name of a non-candidate was written on the ballot. The handwritten name of the candidate was illegible or entire ballots could have been invalidated due to the presence of markings or what is referred to as a “marked ballot”. It is also possible that for some reason the votes cast for president were omitted and were not read at all.

But 12 percent or 4.3 million is too large a number and the Comelec neither offered any explanations nor any quantification to attribute this case to.

An unfamiliar ballot

Most of the 50 million voters in 2010 would have never seen a ballot of the type that will be used in May. For the first time in the national electoral history of the Philippines paper ballots would have the names of all the candidates pre-printed. In all previous elections, the ballots contained blank lines above which voters wrote the names of the candidates. In the machine-readable ballot of the new automated system, there will be an oval beside each name of a candidate which the voter shades or blackens in order to register a vote (see photo of the 2010 election demonstration ballot).

The paper ballot to be used in the automated election system (AES) would be between 13 and 17 inches long, and each side would contain the names of the candidates. According to the Comelec, each side could accommodate 300 names.

In the Philippines-styled synchronized elections, there will be 11 elective positions: president, vice-president, senators, district representatives to congress, party-list representatives to congress, governor, vice-governor, provincial board members, city or municipal mayor, vice-mayor, and city or municipal councilors. Voters can vote up to 12 senators, between two and seven board members by district within a province2, and between four and 12 councilors depending on the classification of the municipality or city3.

The ratio between the elective slots and candidates has been between five and seven. This means that the ballot would contain from 250 to over 400 names, or even more. There were a number of elections when the number of organizations vying for party-list seats alone exceeded a hundred.

Degree of difficulty in accomplishing the ballot

There is an inherent degree of difficulty in accomplishing this type of ballot. If the ballot would be too crowded with candidate names and names of organizations, voters would have to be more careful and ensure that they are shading the right oval of the candidate of their choice.

The longer the ballot paper the more difficult it would be for the voter to follow the list of candidates and track how many ovals have s/he shaded. This is especially a concern for the positions where multiple candidates are allowed like for senators and members of the the provincial and municipal or city councils.

The more intuitive the ballot design is, like grouping and laying out the names of the candidates of the same elective post in a right-to-left fashion (as against a top-to-bottom manner), the lesser the chances of committing errors. Of course, the bigger the fonts, the better and friendlier it would be for the voter.

Familiarity of the ballot layout before the elections; the clarity of instruction on the shading or the types of marking on the ovals that are going to be accurately read by the machine; and assuring the that voter may take as much time as necessary to cast her/his vote could decrease the chances of committing mistakes.

Voters need to be also conscious and reminded of the maximum number of the provincial board members and municipal or city council members that they could vote for. This number is not uniform and it varies according to the locality. Therefore, giving the voter the right information before voting, the moment s/he receives the ballot, and reminding him/her to review the votes cast before feeding the ballot into the machine, could be critical.

There are a number of other things that need to be considered in designing the ballot. What is important is for several ballot designs to be professionally field tested considering a variety of relevant voter demographics, like education and age. The one that would present as easier for the voter to use and accomplish, backed up by field-test data, should be adapted.

Even with simple ballot designs and voting processes, voters still commit mistakes

Ballots in Indonesia, East Timor, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, South Africa and in many other places that I have observed elections in, are simpler. They contain the names, photos and the party or individual symbols of the candidates. The voter only needs to put any mark inside a blank box, which is also pre-printed on the ballot, beside the name of the candidate of his/her choice. In Indonesia and in East Timor, voters could punch a hole in that box to indicate a vote.

But even with this simple design and presumably a more voter-friendly ballot, there was still a six percent invalid vote rate in the 2007 presidential elections in East Timor. In the second round of voting in this same elections, the invalid vote rate dropped to less than three percent. By then voters were already familiar with the ballot and there were only two candidates to vote for during the run-off.

Errors situations where votes would not count

An “overvote” is when votes cast exceed the number of candidates allowed for a particular position. Two ovals shaded or marked for the lone position of president or mayor invalidates the vote for that position. However, all other votes for all other positions would be counted. Where an “undervote” condition exists, like voting only for seven instead of 12 senators, all the seven votes would be counted.

The absence of a shading or a mark in any of the elective positions is a non-vote and there are no penalties for it. Any marks placed placed outside any oval is not going to be recognized by the machine and would constitute a non-vote as far as the machine is concerned.

If parts of the bar code or similar code/s on the ballot, which the machine is programed to detect to indicate that the ballot is authentic and indeed intended for a particular machine is defaced or altered, the entire ballot and all the votes on it would be rejected.

Election results reporting

Imagine an election where the vote difference between the top two candidates for president is about one million. It is not actually hard to do because the margin between Mr Ramos and Ms Santiago in 1998 was 874,0004; and between Ms Arroyo and Mr Poe in 2004 was just 1.2 million votes5.

If the election for president in 2010 would be close, as others have anticipated them to be, an 11 percent differential between the turnout and the total votes cast for president, as shown in 2004, would be material. The Comelec would have to account, as it conducts a progressive tally, how many of the votes were not counted and under what specific conditions were they not counted. This type of report in computer programming parlance is referred to as an exception report.

There have been many instances of local races being won only by a handful of votes. Some had been won by less than a few hundred votes or even with far less. In the same concern expressed earlier, it is, therefore, important for the Comelec to do an exception report, not just for the presidential race, but also for all other positions.

(The author was the executive director of the Philippines' National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections, Namfrel, from 1996 to 2003 and was involved in efforts to modernize Philippine elections since 1994. He has organized or assisted in setting up Namfrel-like organizations in many other countries and has observed many elections worldwide.)


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  3. HOW, REALLY, DID MANUEL BAMBA VILLAR, JR. GET TO BE RICH? It may bear and serve the Filipino nation well to investigate and know that Manny Villar may actually have broken through Tondo-ragged accountancy to billionaire-rich presidentiable by allowing himself to be used as a foreign investor’s dummy in the Philippine real estate business. You see, the conduct of real estate business in the Philippines is made exclusive by law to Filipino citizens, necessarily because it involves business affairs affecting matters of territory, patrimony, and national security. Wasn’t that a debonair American who was smilingly visible every day at the offices of Crown Asia, Inc., way back before the Villars became politically ambitious? Unfortunately, sighting an American presence at Crown Asia, Inc. deteriorates to zero visibility in hot election weather, especially nowadays! As Manny Villar embarked on a political career, it naturally became strategically imperative to avoid flaks of damaging controversy about being economically beholden to foreign influence, especially from nationalist camps of the likes of then Senator Teofisto Guingona Jr. who was instrumental in passing the general law limiting the conduct of real estate business in the Philippines only to Filipinos. In fact, the last times the bespactacled, middle-aged happy American investor (silent or express?) of Crown Asia, Inc. was regularly observed at the 18th Floor of Cityland Herrera Tower was from 1997 to 1999. Most of us do have "humble," sometimes "rotten," beginnings; yet being transparent about such beginnings can do more good than harm. Perhaps good Senator Manuel Villar may want to comment on this at this time?