Lesson for the ARMM polls: New problems accompany election automation

Posted at 08/07/2008 4:02 PM | Updated as of 04/03/2009 9:54 AM

An election watchdog has urged the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to conduct an audit of the results of the August 11 poll in the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which is the first to be automated in the history of the COMELEC.

Roberto Verzola, secretary-general of election watchdog Halalang Marangal, said the use of optical mark readers (OMR) and direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines in the ARMM election does not guarantee an error-free electoral exercise.

"Everyone thinks that if we automate the elections, then all our problems will go away. However, if you look at the experience of the United States and other countries who have automated their elections, the old problems still persist and new problems crop up," he said during a forum at the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement headquarters in Quezon City.

He said more than 42,000 election "incidents" were recorded by the US Election Incident Reporting System (EIRS) of the Verified Voting Foundation for the 2004-2005 US election period alone. Of that number, 2,400 were recorded instances of machine errors of the automated voting machines.

Another study found the actual error rates among electronic voting machines in current use in the US were above the maximum allowable error rate of 1 in 500,000 ballot lines.

A separate study conducted in France showed that 30 percent of polling locations that use electronic voting machines exhibited discrepancies compared to five percent of polling locations using pen and paper voting.

"Clearly, we shouldn't relax our guard just because we are automating the elections," Verzola said.

Machine errors

Machine problems cited in the EIRS database include uninitialized machines, uncounted/lost votes, candidates/choices reverses, contests not counted, wrong winner comes out, voting more than once, votes exceeding total number of voters, negative votes and unauthorized software replacement.

Halalang Marangal Secretary-General Robert Verzola

Verzola said uninitialized machines meant voting machines failed to produce "zero count" printouts when the polling places opened. "This is the electronic equivalent of ballot boxes stuffed with ballots even before the voting has started," he said.

In the case of candidates votes reversed, an undetermined number of votes cast for the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida in 2002 was instead counted for the Republican candidate Jeb Bush due to a "misaligned touch-screen."

Verzola said that in some US elections, votes were simply "lost" or uncounted while in some cases, whole contests were not being counted. In a 2003 election in New Mexico involving 48,000 electronic ballots, 12,000 ballots were ignored by the voting machines only to be discovered 10 days later.

In 2000, a Sequoia DRE machine was taken out of service in an election in Middlesex County, New Jersey after failing to record 65 votes cast for Democrat and Republican candidates for one office "even though 27 votes each were recorded for their running mates."

Some machine errors mimic problems faced by polling officials during manual elections. In the 2003 elections in Boone County in Indiana, electronic voting machines recorded 144,000 votes when registered voters did not exceed 19,000.

One troubling machine error is the problem of negative votes. During the 2000 US presidential election in Volusia County in Florida, Democratic candidate Al Gore got a negative 16,022 votes while Republican candidate George W. Bush picked up 2,813 votes from a single precinct with only 585 registered voters. The correct results that came out after a manual count were Bush 22, Gore 193 and Ralph Nader 1.

Another machine error that could prove costly is when the automated count proclaims the wrong winner. In 2006, a machine count of absentee ballots in Pottawattamie County, Iowa showed John Sciortino 79 and Oscar Duran 99. A manual count led by County Auditor Marilyn Jo Drake later showed that the count was Sciortino 153 and Duran 25.

"Counting in secret"

 

Verzola said software errors, hardware errors, environmental stresses, human errors, poor/flawed design and even malicious tampering could account for the persistence of errors in automated elections systems.

 

As if to emphasize the point, a planned demo of the Smartmatic-SAHI Inc. DRE voting machine to be used in the Maguindanao election failed to push through because the machine ran out of paper. Smartmatic SAHI training officer Ferdie Buenviaje said he failed to bring a key that would open up the machine so he could install replacement paper.

He also said that in the actual election, Smartmatic-SAHI will provide enough paper as well as backup machines in case of machine malfunction.

In his report "Automating Elections: Computers have made mistakes, too", Verzola pointed out that Smartmatic Corp., which is providing the DRE machines for the Maguindanao election, was investigated by US Congress in 2006 to determine "whether it paid bribes to win a Venezuela election contract in 2004." The company later sold off Sequoia Voting Systems, Inc. to avoid further investigation by the US government.

Verzola said the use of DREs poses several problems not the least of which is failing to leave a paper audit trail that would help determine the veracity of the actual count. He said that even when DREs are equipped with printers, there is still no way to confirm whether the official ballot stored inside the DRE or memory stick corresponds with the printout.

"The current way computers are used to record, count and tabulate votes threatens the basic democratic principles of voting in secret and counting in public. In DRE, you are already counting in secret," he said.

Real-time audit, statistical sampling

He said that to minimize errors in the actual count, vendors such as Smartmatic-SAHI should use technology to enhance the transparency of the counting process by printing hard copies of the election returns. He said precinct results should be posted on the Internet while maintaining the public count at the precinct level.

Verzola also said COMELEC should consider using double-entry accounting methods for election tallies, which is usually used by businesses to balance its books. He said using double-entry accounting methods during elections would be more expensive and time-consuming but would also allow post-election auditing and help authorities detect canvassing fraud more easily.

He also suggested that COMELEC allow an independent audit of the ARMM election results using statistical sampling methods. He said that with the relatively small geographical area of ARMM, the COMELEC could easily conduct a post-election audit.

He said the minimum number of polling precincts that need to be chosen at random and manually recounted for the audit should be estimated based on the difference in votes of the winning candidate and his closest rival as well as the level of confidence required. He said that if the results of the recount of the sample precincts do not attain or exceed tha desired confidence level, the sample size must be increased and an additional set of samples randomly selected.

Verzola said that while automation will minimize problems usually encountered during elections, it does not guarantee a fraud-free election. "More than a technological problem, election fraud is really a social problem and therefore calls for social solutions, supported by technological means. The only effective social solution to fraud is elections is eternal vigilance and punishment for the cheats," he said.