Saturday, March 19, 2011

Recount Redux

That there is a strong indication to suspect that errors in the counting process are many enough -- and when corrected would change the results of the election -- is the reason why a losing party would seek a recount. Right?

In the May 2010 local and national elections in the Philippines, machines were used to “read” voter marks on the ballot and aggregate polling station results. Voters were presented with paper ballots that had names of all candidates pre-printed on them and they voted by shading the oval beside the name of each of the candidate they chose. They fed their ballots into the machine that read all the shaded ovals and tallied the votes. The results were known when the polls closed and the machine printed copies of the results.

Precincts (with 200 voters each) were clustered and one machine was allocated for every 1,000 voters. The precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines were manufactured by Smartmatic and the software that “read” the shading on the ovals was reportedly provided by Dominion.

On March 22, 2010, nine weeks before the elections, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) passed resolution 8804 titled, Rules of Procedure on Disputes in an Automated Election System in Connection with the May 10, 2010 Elections. Item l of Section 6, Rule 15 states, “...marks or shades which are less than 50% of the oval shall not be considered as valid votes. Any issue as to whether a certain mark or shade is within the threshold shall be [sic] determined by feeding the ballot on the PCOS machine, and not my human determination”. Counting would be manual unless the recount committees are unable to determine if a shade meets the 50 percent mark or not, then ballot would be fed into the PCOS.

At the end of November, six months after the polls, the Comelec passed resolution 9104 titled, Rules of Procedure for the Recount of Ballots Subject of Election Protest Cases Filed with the Comelec. Amending Section 6, Rule 15 in the previous resolution, it entirely uses the PCOS in the recount. If there is a discrepancy between the original and recounted results, the original ballots images generated in 2010 from the compact flash (CF) card would be compared against the ones just generated at the recount.

However, more than 10 months after the election, on March 16, the Comelec yet again passed another resolution numbered 9164, Reinstating and Reimplementing Comelec Resolution 8804 with Amendments. This reverted the recounting to manual and the PCOS only to be used, if at all, to authenticate the ballots because Comelec could decide on other methods of checking the bar code and the ultra-violet ray code on the ballot. Determining whether an oval the size of a pencil eraser head is shaded 50 percent or more is a now entirely up to humans.

What could explain the corrections made by the Comelec and what might be the impact?

I can think of three and all point to the uncertainty of the accuracy of the machine. Complainants do not want the “suspect” PCOS to do the re-counting (first and second resolutions); change in Comelec chairpersonship; and failure to appreciate new context brought about by automating the vote appreciation process.

Comelec specified in the bid documents that machines should have a certified accuracy of 99.995 percent. This means that the machine may miss a mark for every 20,000 that it has read, or an error rate of 0.005 percent.

Assume 650 voters in a clustered precinct and 73% came out to vote. This yields 475 voters. Assume further an average ballot fill-up rate of 60% (there are between 26 and 32 positions for election on each ballot, but let’s assume 28; and voters only fill up 60% of that, meaning they opted not to vote for some positions). These are 17 marks on every ballot. Multiplied by the number of voters, the number of marks read by the machine in this case is 8,075. So there is a possibility of eight erroneous reads. Whether there will actually be eight or one error or whether there will be any errors at all are all in the realm of probability and statistics.

But the random manual audit commissioned by the Comelec recorded an accuracy of 99.6% or an error rate of 0.4%; or one in every 1,000 marks (Center for People Empowerment and Governance). The National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections’ (Namfrel) also reported accuracy rates of just 99.56 percent and 99.53 percent in the random manual audits they had witnessed.

Another startling discovery is that there was a discrepancy between the number of ballots counted by the machine and the ones counted by the random manual audit committee. I wrote in the Namfrel report that in Precinct Cluster 8 composed of Precincts 32-A, 33-A, 34-A, 35-A and 36-A at the San Perfecto Elementary School (San Juan, metro Manila) the PCOS machine counted 616 ballots although there were only 614 in the box (Namfrel Report 2010). The committee checked and rechecked to ensure that they themselves counted correctly. How could the machine guarantee accuracy in the counting of votes when it could not guarantee accuracy in counting the number of ballots?

A snapshot of the polling station result (known as election return) from the random manual audit of Cluster 8 of San Perfecto Elementary School in San Juan, metro Manila.

The polling station result (known as the election return) prepared at the random manual audit to check the accuracy of the precinct count optical scan machines. This return is from Precinct Cluster 8 of the San Perfecto Elementary School in the city of San Juan in metro Manila. The machine recorded 616 voters but the ballots actually found inside the box was only 614.

Indeed there is reason to suspect the accuracy and reliability of the PCOS. The Comelec is caught between a rock -- reliability of judgment and consistency of human appreciation of degrees of shading of ovals; and a hard place -- the recorded inaccuracies of the PCOS. What to do?

(Part 1 of 4)

1 comment:

  1. Hi Telibert,

    This is going to be short and quick.

    The recount or revision in an election protest will only involve votes for the contested position. Thus, the error rate (as found by Cenpeg and Namfrel in its monitoring of the RMA) would be relevant only of it will be material to the election results concerning the particular contest. As to the human appreciation of the degrees of shading of ovals, I don't see enough of let's say 49.9999 or 50.00001 shading being disputed in an election protest so much so that it would put person doing a "visual appreciation" on a collision course with the PCOS "appreciation." I don't know, but I think the issue of the degree of shading as a source of conflict is a bit exaggerated, as the ovals are quite small to produce a significant number of difficult to judge situations.

    In any case, I agree that the accuracy and reliability of the PCOS is suspect, but primarily because of the failure of comelec to install the security features which the law or even its own resolution requires. This is precisely the reason why there should be a sound election dispute resolution mechanism, that will address all possible questions as to the accuracy and reliability of the system used, as these questions impact on actual election results. EDR should be able, as much as it can, to correct inaccuracies, due to fraud or error, and lead to the proclamation of the rightful winner. On the other hand it should also afford an opportunity for COMELEC to have its PCOS count affirmed as accurate.

    The ambivalence of comelec as to whether to allow a manual or visual recount or revision of ballots or to limit recount to the use of PCOS adds to the suspicion. Comelec should be confident in showing that even a manual or visual count can affirm the accuracy of their PCOS count, if they think their choice of system is right.

    The bottom line issue in most of the current protest cases is whether the PCOS machines counted correctly and whether the CCS or the vote transmission and aggregation process were accurate. Human eyes can be counted on to recount the votes, if only to ensure credible election results in the light of a suspicious PCOS system. The adjudicators just need to make sure that the ballots they would be reading are in the same state as when they were cast on election day. The so called "post election operation" prevalent in previous manual elections is still possible.

    hey too much ramblings from me now.... mag usap na lang tayo idol!