Hybrid poll system demonstrated in mock election

Michael Bueza
Hybrid poll system demonstrated in mock election
The Comelec is present in a demo of the Precinct Automated Tallying System (PATaS), a semi-automated system pushed as an alternative to the PCOS machines and the current fully-automated polls

MANILA, Philippines – A group led by former poll commissioner Augusto “Gus” Lagman demonstrated on Saturday, June 27, a hybrid system being pushed as an alternative to the PCOS machines and the current automated election system.

The Precinct Automated Tallying System (PATaS) is a semi-automated system: manual voting and counting in polling precincts, and automated canvassing through electronic transmission of election returns. (READ: Poll watchdog pushes for ‘laptop count’ to replace PCOS)

Notable in PATaS is its transparency mechanism, where a projector in each precinct displays the vote count as it is encoded on a laptop, which would reflect the same count as the manual tally. This, said Lagman, will allow poll watchers to monitor and double-check the vote count.

Officials of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), including chairman Andres Bautista, were present in a mock election held on Saturday at a school in Bacoor City, Cavite, to see the PATaS in action.

Also in attendance were Capiz Representative and House electoral reforms committee chair Fredenil Castro, local leaders, and representatives of political parties and poll watchdogs.

Lagman, representing the TransparentElections.org.ph, called Saturday’s end-to-end demo a success.

“Our system works. It is sound, and it is a very good alternative that the Comelec should really look into,” Lagman told Rappler in a phone interview.

However, poll observers noted some issues and problems in the PATaS that need to be addressed.

Semi-automated polls

Two polling precincts at the Bacoor National High School Annex in Barangay Tabing Dagat hosted the PATaS demo, each using a different voting scheme, to see which would lead to a faster vote count.

In one precinct, the voters wrote the numbers paired to the candidate they voted for. In the other, the names of their preferred candidates were written on the ballot, just like in past manual polls, the country’s election system until 2010.

The polling precincts opened at 7 am. As it was a mock election, voters were allowed to vote more than once to increase the turnout, said Lagman in a text message.

After polls closed at around 10 am, with almost 200 votes in each precinct, the ballots were counted manually by the board of election inspectors (BEI) and tallied on the election return (ER). At the same time, the vote count was encoded on a laptop and projected on a screen.

The counting began at 1 pm, but Lagman said it was ended after 25 votes in both precincts have been read, “since the system has already been demonstrated satisfactorily.”

The election returns encoded in the laptop were then successfully transmitted to a mock municipal board of canvassers. Lagman noted that Bacoor City was chosen as the venue for the mock polls, since the PCOS “apparently failed to transmit there” in the previous elections.

‘More transparent polls’

Lagman touted the success of Saturday’s test run, saying that the system ran very well. “It was successful. It worked,” he said. “It was a productive run.”

As for the two modes of manual voting, Lagman said that voting by candidate number was the faster one.

He noted that observers had raised questions during the demo, but he said that his group was able to think of solutions in response.

“We have already thought of new improvements that could be incorporated later on. We learned from all of this,” Lagman said, adding that he is open to recommendations to further improve the system.

The former Comelec commissioner claims that the PATaS is more transparent than the current system that uses precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines. The PCOS machines face reliability issues, following reported glitches during the 2010 and 2013 elections.

“Anytime you automate, you lose transparency,” said Lagman. “When you automate the precinct counting, what can you watch? How do you know that it’s counted correctly by the PCOS, for instance?”

“When we designed the PATaS, not only did we bring back transparency in the system, but we also enhanced it through features like the projection of the vote count on a big screen,” he continued.

A feature that Lagman said was not exhibited on Saturday was the use of webcams or external cameras to project the ballots on a screen as it is counted. (READ: Webcams proposed to guard 2016 ballots)

Problems encountered

Poll observers, while highlighting the intention of PATaS to be more transparent, noted some of the problems during the end-to-end demonstration.

Lawyer Rona Caritos of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) said that they found it hard to observe the mock election because “andaming titingnan (there were many things to monitor).” This might mean the deployment of more poll watchers, she said in a phone interview.

She also noted a few instances where the manual tallying of votes by the BEI and by the laptop operator did not match. (This was immediately corrected in the precinct, replied Lagman, by reconciling the two counts.)

In addition, Caritos recalled that some election lawyers had questioned the appreciation of some handwritten numbers on the ballot, as in the case of”1″ and “7.”

Caritos suggested that further studies be made to improve the PATaS, and to include a canvassing stage in future demos to fully exhibit the proposed system.

In the end, Caritos said that in any election system, the real intention of the voter should be clear.

‘Redundancy’

A former Comelec commissioner also raised some concerns over the PATaS, especially on some redundancies in the proposed system.

Gregorio Larrazabal, who is now a counsel of the Nationalist People’s Coalition, noted that the manually-tallied ERs would be the official documents, and not the one encoded on laptops and transmitted to the canvassing centers.

“In this case, the official ERs is the hard copy. What’s the use of the electronic transmission?” he asked. This quirk was also echoed by Lente.

“I think they have to reevaluate the viability of the system, especially the procedures and its ability to withstand legal questions,” he said.

Larrazabal also said that any system proposed for 2016 should build on the gains of the 2010 automated polls, which was also a presidential election. “You have to. You cannot step back,” he added.

“It has to be emphasized that you can never have a perfect election. But we could continually improve in running the election,” he said further.

‘Miserably unsuccessful’

The Capiz lawmaker, for his part, was not convinced with the PATaS.

In a text message, Castro said that the hybrid system was “miserably [unsuccessful] to even closely match the advantages of a fully-automated election.”

While lauding the dedication and effort of Lagman’s group to seek a better, less expensive, and more transparent election system, Castro listed some problems that he saw in the PATaS.

He said that the counting of votes was at a “turtle’s pace.” (Lagman argued that the discussions and responses to observers’ questions were what prolonged it.)

In addition, some important details like the number of votes being canvassed were not shown on the projected display, claimed Castro.

He also observed that political parties and candidates would need to deploy more watchers, one for each aspect of the PATaS, like the votes projected on the screen, the reading of votes by a teacher, the audit tally by another teacher, and the actions of the laptop operator.

The congressman noted that the apparent flaws and imperfections of the PATaS “will open the floodgates to more election protests. It will not also arrest the never-ending suspicion on election results, but will increase and aggrave them.”

“The system of Lagman’s group might be cheaper in terms of pesos, but the stability of our democracy cannot be subjected to any tag price,” he said. “The consequences of a highly-questionable election result could be immeasurable and devastating to our democracy, election being its foundation.”

At the end of Saturday’s demonstration, the Comelec called on the observers to submit their written comments and opinions not later that Friday, July 3. – Rappler.com

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Michael Bueza

Michael is a data curator under Rappler's Tech Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.