How to prevent cheating with the vote-counting machines

Emil Marañon III
How to prevent cheating with the vote-counting machines
Know the weak features of this animal called the VCM that the unscrupulous might exploit on election day

The Internet is the Wild Wild West of information, that searching for the right and accurate often poses a challenge. Given the approaching elections in the Philippines, one subject of many wrong information and misconceptions is the vote-counting machines or VCMs that will be used at the precincts on May 9.

Let me discuss 10 things about the VCMs – not just the machines’ best features, but their weak spots as well. This, so the public may know what to watch out for if we want clean and credible elections.


1. VCMs cannot prevent vote buying. It may even facilitate it if the safeguards against the misuse of voting receipts are not strictly implemented. 

The voting machine is not a panacea to all our election problems. All it does is read the ballots, count the votes, and transmit them to the next level for canvassing. Everything else is up to the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI), watchers, and other actors. Vote buying, for example, is conducted usually before polling, usually the night before. Preventing it requires the concerted efforts of the police and the community.

There is, however, a danger that voting receipts, as the Commission on Elections feared, may be used by candidates to verify and validate if the voters they paid have lived up to their agreement. While supposedly only the voter can see the ballots and the voter receipts, polling precincts – which are usually small and crowded – don’t really afford the voter full and complete secrecy. Some BEI members can be lax; others, partial. While watchers can be unruly and sneaky, voting receipts may be abused and used to facilitate vote buying.

Should this happen, the public and other watchers can invoke Comelec rules. These include requiring watchers to stay only in their reserved seats or spaces, and prohibiting the taking photos of ballots and receipts. 

MOCK ELECTIONS. Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) in Bagong Pag-asa Elementary School in Quezon City remove election results after transmitting. Photo by Joel Liporada/Rappler


2. Ballots are precinct-specific.

This means that each VCM is configured to recognize and accept only ballots customized and pre-assigned to a precinct. The VCMs can receive only a specified number of ballots, equivalent to the number of registered voters in that precinct. Any ballots fed in excess of the pre-determined number of ballots, or those ballots coming from other precincts, will be rejected by the VCM.

In 2010, when I lawyered for a candidate in Tawi-tawi, my colleagues and I noted that the PCOS machine (forerunner of the VCM) in a precinct was able to detect ballots from another precinct on an island a sea away. These ballots were rejected by the machines in the earlier precinct. We took this as proof that no election happened in the entire municipality despite the 100% turnout of votes. Voting was done by a few people in one basketball court, as reported.


3. The voting remains manual.

Voting in the Philippine remains manual despite the presence of machines. What has been automated is the counting and the transmission of the result. We still manually vote by shading the ovals corresponding to our candidates of choice. This means that coercion, intimidation, and forced voting may still happen as in manual elections.


4. Presently, the VCMs have no capability of knowing if the voter feeding his ballot is a registered voter in that precinct.

The VCM has no capability of distinguishing voters and verifying if they are indeed registered voters in a particular precinct. Technically speaking, in connivance with the BEI, one person can vote for the entire barangay. This happens in many places in the Philippines that are ruled by warlords, and where watchers and observers are not provided access.

In the Tawi-Tawi case I mentioned, we noted the schemes “SBO” (shaded by one) and “FBO” (fed by one). In this election operation, a few people are made to vote for the entire barangay and even municipality, pushing the turnout to 100% and maximizing the lead of the chosen local and national candidates, with their opponents getting zero. 

For the 2016 elections, recognizing the impossibility of securing all polling places all over the Philippines, the Comelec attempted to address this problem by adopting the voter verification system (VVS), an add-on or peripheral device to the then PCOS machines, now the VCMs. 

In this system, the Comelec preloads the biometric data of all registered voters of a particular precinct to the VVS and connects it to the VCM. Before feeding his ballot into the VCM, the voter is required to input his fingerprint to the scanner of the VVS. Only after the machine recognizes the biometrics would it accept and count the ballot.

The VVS would have made it extra difficult for cheats to do substitute voting en masse. The infrastructure for this plan had been laid down in preparation for the full implementation of the VVS. Through Republic Act Number 10367 which mandated a biometrics-based voter registration system, the Comelec was able to successfully gather the biometric data of all 54 million voters and remove from the list all those without.

However, due to time and financial constraints, the plan for the VVS was cancelled at the last minute. The cost of each VVS machine was estimated to be about P90,000. With 92,509 clustered precincts, the VVS machines would have cost more than P8 billion.


5. The VCMs cannot prevent double voting.

Because the VCM lacks biometric detection, it opens the system to double voting. Had there been a VVS, once a voter has voted, subsequent attempts by the same person will be rejected by the machine. As of now, preventing double voting would be up to the BEI and the vigilance of the watchers.

Strangers may also pretend to be registered voters, pick some random names in the Posted Computerized Voters’ List (PCVL) and vote on their behalf. While this may not be a problem in small barangays, where everyone knows each other, this is a legitimate concern in big barangays in cities and other urban areas. 

(Take note that the presentation of identification documents – always the cause for long arguments at precincts – is not required. However, when someone challenges your identity, you may be asked to present some proof of identity, so always bring an ID.)

VOTING MACHINES. The Philippines' vote-counting machines for May 9, 2016 have been manufactured by Smartmatic, which provided the same machines in the Philippines' first two automated elections. File photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler    


6. The VCM scans every ballot fed to it and saves images in their SD cards.

One of the outstanding features of the VCMs is the capability to scan the shaded ballots, encrypt those images, and store them in the VCM’s SD (secure digital) cards. So, apart from the physical ballots, there are scanned copies of the same ballots. 

The Supreme Court has  accorded these ballot images with the same evidentiary weight as the actual ballots. They are even viewed as more reliable due to the encryption mechanism implemented and the delimited and traceable chain of custody and storage.

This feature was meant to prevent the scenario in manual elections where losing candidates who file election protests would “operate” the ballots. Cheats usually put invalidating marks on the physical ballots that bore the names of opponents, and put their names, post-election, on blank spaces despite the voters’ intent to abstain.

This new feature has been very effective in detecting post-election tampering by simply comparing the physical ballots with their scanned images. The most noteworthy incident was when a move to discredit the Comelec and the 2013 elections was frustrated before the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on the Automated Election System (JCOC-AES). 

In this controversy, a certain Judge Celso Baguio of the Regional Trial Court of Gapan City, Nueva Ecija, declared in a civil case that Eddie Villanueva was cheated in the senatorial elections. The judge unabashedly pronounced that the then PCOS machines were inaccurate in counting the votes cast for Villanueva.

Critics of the Comelec, like AES Watch, hailed the decision as incontrovertible proof of the fraud. They missed considering the scanning feature of the voting machines. Under the auspices of the JCOC, consisting of the House of Representatives and Senate members, the ballot images were printed and paired with their physical counterparts. Comparison showed that votes for Eddie Villanueva had been added post-election on the controversial ballots after the elections. No such votes were reflected on ballots originally fed into the machines and scanned on election day. .

Watchers should have their eyes on the SD cards over the physical ballots, making sure these are safe and in proper custody.


7. VCMs can fail and malfunction.

“Lemons” are a fact of our modern and technology-driven lives. VCMs are no different from computers, laptops, and other gadgets. Despite layers of quality checks, some “lemon” VCMs might find their way to the precincts, and this may pose a problem on election day.

The media, however, should be careful not to give inordinate focus, if only one or a few machines malfuction, as this may sow panic among voters. In 2013, one TV station spent hours broadcasting and criticizing one defective machine in Quezon City, but forgot to contextualize the scenario where thousands of other machines worked fine.

While lemons may be inevitable, I believe that Comelec has an established back-up plan on who to call and how to quickly provide replacement VCMs should it happen.


8. VCMs have “audit logs.”

The VCMs have audit logs or audit trails. It is a security-relevant chronological record of all specific operation, procedure, or event affecting a VCM. It serves as documentary evidence of the sequence of activities of the VCMs, noting details like the time they were turned on and off, the exact time they read the ballot, commands entered by the operators, and all cases of ballot rejection.

Back in the Tawi-Tawi case, for example, the audit logs could show indications of fraud, like: when the logs revealed that the PCOS was used outside of the designated voting hours; when ballots from a different island were wrongfully and accidentally inserted and rejected in one precinct; and where precincts with 100% turnout were operational only for 2-3 hours, yet were able to scan and read 800-900 ballots, almost instantaneously and in a factory-like manner.


9. The VCMs print precinct election returns prior to transmission.

“Hacking” of the electronic results has been a public concern with regard to the VCMs. While it would indeed be unwise to sweepingly dismiss any possibility of electronic tampering, it is also irresponsible not to challenge many theories put forward that are based on a lack of understanding of how the system works.

First, election results are transmitted and canvassed in a ladderized manner. Results are transmitted from one level to another: from the barangay precinct to the municipality/component city, then to the province; from the province (independent component and highly urbanized city cities) to the national servers. In this scheme, no official results – even for the national positions – go straight up to the national servers. 

For the first level – transmission from the polling precinct to the municipal board of canvassers (MBOC) – 8 copies of election returns are printed before transmission, then 22 copies are printed after transmission. These printed election returns are distributed to political parties and designated interested parties/persons. This is meant to counter any form of fraud in transmission since interested parties and groups have evidence to question any discrepancy later on when votes are consolidated by the MBOC.

So even if, theoretically speaking, the transmitted results are substituted through “hacking”, the printed election returns at the precinct level maybe used to question or dislodge the hacked result received by the MBOC/CBOC.

This why it is important for the watchers to secure at all times copies of these election returns at the precinct level. To know if you are entitled to receive copies of these returns, check Article VII, Section 28 of Comelec Resolution Number 10057.


10. The truth on the incomplete transmission.

Much has been said about “incomplete transmission” in the 2010 and 2013 automated elections. People called out the Comelec for not counting their votes, and therefore disenfranchising them.

We have to understand that there are two kinds of “transmissions” involving the precinct results.

First is the “unofficial” transmission. This pertains to the transmission from the polling precincts direct to the: KBP/Transparency Server (where unofficial media counts source their data); and the Comelec central office server, which publishes in advance the election results in real time.

Second is the “official” transmission of the result from the polling precinct to the Municipal or City Board of Canvassers, following previously discussed ladderized system of transmitting official results. This transmission is what counts, and the results that goes through this ladderized system is the one considered “official results” and this is the only accepted basis for proclamation.

To illustrate: a polling precinct in Davao City will make multiple transmissions. It will not only officially transmit the precinct result to the Davao City Board of Canvassers, it will also furnish the KBP and the Comelec central office the advance copy of the precinct results, pending the official tabulation.

The criticism on the “incomplete transmission” pertains to the “unofficial” transmission, where polling precincts, due to failed transmissions, were unable to electronically transmit to the KBP and to the unofficial Comelec central office server. Failure to transmit could happen for varied reasons: poor signal, no signal, signal interruption, hardware defects, software errors, among others.

However, in the official ladderized transmission scheme, the procedure in case of repeated failed transmissions is for the BEI to physically bring the SD card containing the encrypted result to the MBOC/CBOC and manually upload the same to the Consolidation and Canvassing System (CCS). Through this manual upload, the missing result is pieced in or completed in the MBOC/CBOC count, while they remain missing or marked “untransmitted” in the KBP and unofficial Comelec central office servers.

In response to the criticism of incomplete transmissions in the past, the Comelec has revised the rule for 2016 by prioritizing the unofficial transmission to the KBP/Transparency and Comelec central office servers over the official transmission to the MBOC/CBOC.

Now, only after the unofficial transmission is transmitted does the VCM officially transmit the results to the MBOC/CBOC. The old rule in the 2010 and 2013 elections prioritized the official transmission to MBOC/CBOC, on the theory that KBP/Transparency and unofficial Comelec central office servers are, after all, not the official count.

Whether this is the right priority or the right remedy to the problem of transmission is too late to be debated. Let’s just keep tight watch on the vote come May 9 and the days after. – 

Emil Marañon III is an election lawyer who served as chief of staff of recently retired Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. He is currently studying Human Rights, Conflict and Justice at SOAS, University of London, as a Chevening scholar.  

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.