How does the PH automated election system work?

Michael Bueza
How does the PH automated election system work?
(1st UPDATE) At the core of the automated election system is the election management system, which sets up the automation of the polls and manages election-related data

Editor’s Note: This page was updated to reflect the set-up for the 2022 elections.

MANILA, Philippines – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) has held automated elections in the Philippines since 2010. Compared to manual elections of years past, voters get an idea on who will be the country’s next leaders much earlier, because the vote counts are electronically transmitted immediately after polling precincts close.

However, the automated polls are not without its flaws. Over the years, it has faced criticism over its implementation. Comelec then responded with tweaks and fixes in the system, in its efforts to make the system more reliable and transparent.

Let’s review how the Philippines’ automated election system (AES) works.

Election management system

At the core of the AES is the election management system (EMS), which sets up the automation of the polls and manages election-related data.

The EMS imports pre-election data files, like geographical subdivisions, voting jurisdictions, number of registered voters, candidate details, and information on the members of the board of election inspectors (BEI).

It also defines and prepares ballot templates for each town and city nationwide.

In addition, the EMS creates location-specific configuration files for the voting machines and canvassing centers, and generates report templates for the election results.

The ballot designs and configuration files are created by a program called an Election Event Designer (EED), while an Election Programming Station (EPS) loads the configuration files into secure digital (SD) cards and “iButton” security keys.

The vote-counting machines

The BEIs use these “iButtons” to activate the most widely-known component of the current AES: the vote-counting machine or VCM. It was previously known as the precinct count optical scan or PCOS machine.

These VCMs are deployed in clustered precincts nationwide and in select overseas posts. Each clustered precinct is generally made up of established precincts grouped together to meet the assigned maximum number of voters per VCM.

In the 2022 elections, for instance, due to COVID-19 health protocols, the Comelec reduced to 800 the number of voters assigned per polling precinct, versus 1,000 in 2019.

As of the 2022 polls, there are over 107,000 clustered precincts. This number has changed across elections: there were only around 86,000 clustered precincts in 2019, over 92,000 in 2016, nearly 78,000 in 2013, and around 74,000 in 2010.

On election day, voters feed their ballot into the VCM, which then counts the ovals that voters have shaded to vote for their preferred national and local candidates.

The VCMs also print a voter receipt, so that the voter can verify if the machine read their ballot properly. Also known as the voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT), this was first deployed in the 2016 elections after much legal controversy. To protect ballot secrecy and prevent use of these voter receipts for vote-buying, the voters are not allowed to take these receipts outside of the polling precincts. Instead, they will be surrendered to poll officers after the voter’s quick verification.

The digital images of all scanned ballots are encrypted and saved on SD cards in the VCMs, while the physical ballots go directly into the ballot boxes below the machine.

The VCMs are operated by a software provided by Dominion Voting Systems and have been licensed to Smartmatic-Total Information Management (TIM) Corp since the 2010 polls.

This software, as well as those used by other components of the AES, shall go through source code reviews by accredited local groups and organizations, and certifications by an international certification entity. (FAQs: Why worry about PCOS code?)

Canvassing, transmission

When polls close on election day, the VCMs transmit the vote counts – also known as election returns or ERs – to the different servers and canvassing centers in the AES.

Starting in the 2022 elections, teachers serving as members of the electoral board at the polling precincts first sign these ERs with digital signatures, issued by the Comelec and the Department of Education. In past elections, the digital signatures came from the VCMs.

The consolidation/canvassing system (CCS) receives and processes these ERs. The software used by the CCS, called the real-time election information system (REIS), reads incoming data and canvasses the votes.

Meanwhile, the electronic results transmission service (ERTS) handles the actual transmission of votes. The main channel is through public telecommunications networks, with transmission via satellite as back-up.

Modems were used with the VCMs to help transmit ERs, and installed in canvassing centers to receive ERs. Each machine can only transmit once. Individual machines are traceable through IP address, clustered precinct ID, and MAC address.

From the VCMs, the ERs are transmitted to the central server, the transparency server, and the municipal board of canvassers (MBOC).

The transparency server transmits to the media server which links to the workstations of election watchdog groups, political parties, and media who are to access real time results.

There is also a back-up server, which only kicks in when the central and transparency servers fail.

As for the “ladderized” transmission of votes via the different canvassing levels, from the MBOC, the results are transmitted to the provincial board of canvassers (PBOC), where the results are collated and then transmitted to the national board of canvassers (NBOC), where the results for national positions are canvassed.

The MBOC and PBOC also separately beam ERs to the central server.

In 2013, results from provinces in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) were likewise transmitted to the ARMM regional board of canvassers – where results for ARMM governor, vice governor, and assemblymen are tallied – before being transmitted to the central server.

For presidential and vice presidential polls like in 2016 and 2022, there will be a separate server installed in Congress, where members of the Senate and the House of Representatives will convene to canvass the votes and officially proclaim the winning President and Vice President.

The Comelec automatically publishes electronically-transmitted precinct-level election results on its website but these results are unofficial and not tabulated. The tabulated results that are published on the Comelec website are based on the official results as reflected on the certificates of canvass.

Issues, criticisms, allegations

In 2010, the AES only managed to release around 50% of granular precinct-level results to media and watchdog groups via the transparency servers.

In 2013, a mirror server, donated by Rappler, was allowed to link to the transparency server, and this enabled Comelec to give access to more media organizations.

In succeeding elections, the Comelec continued the practice of having an additional media server to increase access to the real time results. It also gradually improved its delivery of electronically transmitted ERs. As of 2019, over 98% of ERs were received by transparency and media server end-users.

However, the automated election process has not been without issues and controversies.

In the run-up to the 2013 polls, the VCM source code was “held hostage” by a legal battle between Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic in the US. As a result, local groups and poll watchdogs were not able to review the VCM source code.

It was only a few days before election day when the Comelec finally received the PCOS source code, which was then reviewed only by representatives from the two dominant political parties and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), Comelec’s accredited citizens’ arm.

In that same year, transmission to the Comelec transparency server stalled at 76% due to a mix of damaged compact flash (CF) cards in VCMs and weak telecommunications signals in some areas. After these issues were resolved, the ERs from these affected areas were eventually transmitted to the other Comelec servers a few days later.

Also in the 2013 midterm polls, an allegation surfaced online saying that a “60-30-10” pattern emerged in the senatorial race, which supposedly favored the administration bets of then-President Benigno Aquino III. Supposedly, 60% of the votes went to the Team PNoy slate, 30% went to the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) slate, while the remaining 10% went to other candidates.

However, experts pointed to the “law of large numbers” in explaining this supposed pattern. Further, data analysis by Rappler’s research team showed that regional and local breakdowns of the senatorial race also disproved this allegation. (READ: High-tech vote watching: Going beyond 60-30-10)

In 2016, a mismatch in the hashcode after the Comelec applied a cosmetic change to the character “Ñ” led to cheating allegations and a graph-making frenzy due to a tight vice presidential race.

The issue persisted even after the Comelec and Smartmatic demonstrated the process for verifying that the hash mismatch is traceable to the “Ñ” correction.

In 2019, what could have been a fairly good transmission delivery was marred by a glitch in the software that decrypts and consolidates ERs transmitted into results files that can be consumed by transparency and media server end users. This resulted in the inability of media organizations to tabulate real time results for almost seven hours.

For the duration of the glitch, the main election server continued to publish granular, albeit untabulated results. This became known as the seven-hour “glitch.” 

Comelec Deputy Executive Director for Operations Teopisto Elnas Jr. explained to TMS end users in a briefing in May 2022 that while the issue could have been resolved by simply restarting the system, it took the Comelec team at the transparency server room seven hours to fix the issue because touching the system requires a Comelec en banc decision.

For the 2022 elections, the Comelec assures the public that this will not happen again because the system has been stress tested to the point where it could still process the results even if all vote counting machines transmitted at the same time.

Comelec personnel stationed at the server room have likewise been empowered to do simple fixes such as restarting the system provided the code itself is not touched. – Rappler.com

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.