23 May 2007

Notes on automating our elections

YESTERDAY, I made a number of comments on Dean Jorge Bocobo's fascinating entry on automating of elections. Essentially, Dean's arguments center on the use of cellphones to transmit results from the precinct to a central level, which would allow faster tabulation of results, especially for national contests.

In a way, it differs from Ruben Canlas's proposal which is centered on internet voting, and Jester-in-Exile's very detailed two-part description of a fully automated voting system found here and here. And I find myself agreeing to its underlying logic for practical reasons. Some notes are in order:

1. CELLPHONES. From our experience in managing Naga's i-Governance Program, the use of cellphones as a preferred communications medium was a deliberate choice. Applied to voting, it has the following advantages:

a. Higher penetration rate. Mobiles phones are more ubiquitous compared to internet PCs; last year, we have already reached 45%. The digital divide, I think, the main problem of an internet voting system.

b. Low-power consumption. Cellphones do not really need 24/7 power supply, making it ideal to even rural precincts. A major constraint lies in the coverage areas of our telcos, but then again, satellite phones can pretty much address this gap.

c. Faster transmission. SMS messages, consisting mainly of text, will transmit to a central node faster, compared to graphical data such as images of ERs generated by digital camera or camera phones.

2. LOW-TRUST SOCIETY. As Canlas said, there will be resistance to the deployment of a fully automated system. The reason behind it, according to Fernando Fajardo, lies in our being a low-trust society.

We just cannot imagine that the one in charge of the computers to be used during election will not cheat. Therefore, we spent a lot of time in Congress figuring out the best tamper-proof computer or program to use during elections. The worst part came during the bidding of the election computerization project conducted by this administration before the 2004 election. We know now it was grossly overpriced and suffered from many defects that made the system unworkable and unacceptable.
A middle ground would be to use the existing precinct-based manual appreciation and tallying of votes, as Dean proposes, and use ICT tools to facilitate the transmission of results to Comelec-Manila for national posts, and to both the municipal/city and provincial Comelec offices for local contests.

Yes, it will not do away with the violent incidents -- the Taysan schoolbuilding burning, for instance -- that we saw last May 14. But a faster count will do away with the anxiety and opportunities for fraud that have characterized the period from May 15 up to this writing.

Yes, teachers will continue to be involved, but then again, it has its own plus and minuses. The disadvantage lies in time and again exposing teachers to a task that is not part of their regular duties. But in a low-trust society like ours, who do we trust better than our teachers? According to observations, the precinct count has largely been more honest; it is when results are brought up to higher levels, and lawyers start getting into the act, that the process becomes messy.

We have our 3rd session with the UBC students coming up in 10 minutes, so I'm cutting this short here. But I will explore the use of cameraphones in my next post.