2022 Philippine Elections

Manual, hybrid, fully automated: Which way to go after 2022?

Rochel Ellen Bernido
Manual, hybrid, fully automated: Which way to go after 2022?

VOTERS. People flock to the Guadalupe Elementary School in Cebu City to vote in the 2022 Philippine elections.

Jacqueline Hernandez/Rappler

‘A lot of groups are focused more on the automated election system, forgetting that before the elections, there [were] these activities [of cheating that were] going on already,’ says Namfrel's Lito Aviera

MANILA, Philippines – Talk about replacing the current automated election system with a hybrid version – or even reverting to the manual counting of votes – became more heightened after the controversial win of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. 

During Rappler’s May episode of Newsbreak Chats: Was there cheating in the 2022 Philippine elections, election observers from the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) tackled the nitty-gritty questions about the technicalities of automated elections, existing safeguards, and proposed countermeasures.

“A lot of groups are focused more on the automated election system, forgetting that before the elections, there [were] these activities [of cheating that were] going on already; or even, like, the vote buying, it happens also on election day,” Namfrel’s Lito Aviera, national council member and systems group head, said. 

Reports during the election period also revealed that incidents of cheating could not necessarily be attributed to the machine. 

So, ‘yung point natin, these numbers na pinaghihinalaan natin, they are there precisely because before the voters enter the precinct, mayroon na silang deal, [katulad ng] ano’ng ilalagay sa balota,” Go added. (Our point is that, these numbers that we’re suspecting, they are there precisely because before the voters enter the precinct, they already have a deal, like, what they should input in their ballots.)

Manual, hybrid, fully automated: Which way to go after 2022?
Safeguards of the automated system

Although the election observers admitted that the system is still far from perfect, especially with reports of widespread vote-buying in the recently concluded elections, there are still a number of misinformed beliefs and misplaced anger over the technical aspects of the electoral system.

From the absurd speculation about the 3G-to-4G upgrade of the vote counting machines (VCMs) to reports of SD card replacement in an alleged attempt to rig the polls, Aviera set the record straight and pointed to existing safeguards in the current automated system:

  • VCM’s network connection. The vote-counting machines only connect to the network when it is ready to transmit. This provides a very limited window of time for groups to break into the VCM. In short, the disjointed network makes it harder for groups to hack the system.
  • Election returns. The election returns (ERs), a document in electronic and printed form which contains the details of the precinct and the votes for each candidate in that area, are digitally signed and double-encrypted. For NCR, Cebu City, and Davao City, the ERs were digitally signed by the members of the Electoral Board. 
  • List of all VCM sources. The target servers – transparency server, central server, and the consolidation and canvassing system servers at the city or municipality – have a white list of all VCM sources, according to Aviera. Transmission from malicious devices will be rejected.
  • Ballots’ security feature. Ballots are serialized. These are also precinct-specific.
  • I-button security. The i-buttons, which are used to execute a digital signature, cannot operate VCMs beyond their designation. The operators should also ensure that they know the passwords. 
  • Logs. It is possible to audit the whole process – or, in short, rerun the entire elections – through the help of all the logs: ranging from the VCM, the transmission network log, the server logs, down to the ballot. 
  • Source code review. The source code is open for review to all political parties and other observers. The said code was also audited by an information security professional organization. 
Manual, hybrid, fully automated: Which way to go after 2022?
Manual, hybrid, or automated? 
  • Hybrid

For Namfrel, the latest iteration of their hybrid proposal is best for elections. They propose a return to manual elections, wherein voters would have to manually fill up a ballot. At the precinct level, the votes would be counted manually after which election returns would be transmitted electronically, followed by the ladderized electronic canvassing of results – from precinct all the way to the national levels.

Addressing concerns about speed and accuracy of the process, Namfrel’s “evolved proposal” involves technology and the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), the “resibo” or paper trail that ensures that the votes have been placed correctly. 

Kasi ngayon, if you would notice, voters are more aware of the ‘resibo.’ So, they really check the receipt kung ‘yung binoto nila ay reflected doon sa receipt; and then, there’s the QR code. Our version now includes using the VVPAT, or the ‘resibo,’ to do the count,” Aviera said. 

(Now, if you would notice, voters are more aware of the receipt. So, they really check the receipt if their votes were reflected properly; and then, there’s the QR code. Our version now includes using the VVPAT, or the receipt, to do the count.) 

“Kasi, i-scan mo lang ‘yung QR code; encoded in the QR code are the selections of the voter. So, matatapos ‘yung, like, 800 VVPATS in about an hour, an hour and a half. Mas mabilis siya – to do a parallel count with the count done by the machine, at precinct level,” he added. 

(You just have to scan the QR code; encoded in the QR code are the selections of the voter. [An estimate of] 800 VVPATS will be processed in about an hour, [or about] an hour and a half. This is faster – to do a parallel count, with the count done by the machine, at precinct level.)

Manual, hybrid, fully automated: Which way to go after 2022?
  • Fully automated 

Although PPCRV’s William Yu admitted that he also liked Namfrel’s idea, their stance is firm: “Our position has been very clear since 2010, we support full automation.”

The institution’s trustee and co-IT director emphasized that they prefer “as much technology as possible” due to concerns over speed, audit, and safety. 

“The shorter the vulnerability window, the harder it is to cheat. The time between [the period] you plug into the network, and transmit, and share the returns between all media entities and observers – if that’s a few seconds or minutes – it’s harder to cheat in a few minutes, than, say, a few days,” Yu said. 

He added, “In an electronic system, there are so many copies of the results, there’s the scanned image, there’s the ballot itself, there’s the VVPAT, the eight printed transmitted copies, and whoever got the transmitted copies, marami pa (there’s a lot more). There’s so many pieces of the result, that if you were to change the elections, you have to change all of them.” 

The safety of the election volunteers was also pointed out, citing a fatal incident in 2016 wherein one of the PPCRV volunteers was gunned down. “Even though they know that gunning down the volunteer doesn’t actually change the results, because the basis is the electronic transmission; but again, some people don’t know that, right? And they think, ‘Oh, that’s the ballot box going to the municipal board of canvassers.’ It’s a dangerous position to put our volunteers in.”

Rappler’s data scientist, Dylan Salcedo, who also approves of a fully automated system, said, “I think it all boils down to [individuals] getting to know more about what actually happens, and I think, it’s the job of the people who instigate this system to properly explain it to [the voters].” – Rappler.com