How does the PH automated election system work?

MANILA, Philippines – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) is determined to automate the 2016 national and local elections, where voters will select, among others, the 16th president of the Philippines.

It will be the country's third automated polls, but preparations for it have been less than smooth-sailing, with the Comelec adjusting to recent court decisions as well as issues in poll equipment procurement less than a year before the 2016 polls. 

To understand what the fuss is all about, let's take a step back and review the Philippines' automated election system (AES).

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 compact flash (CF) cards and "iButton" security keys.

The PCOS machines

These "iButtons" are used by the BEIs to activate the most widely-known component of the current AES: its voting machine, popularly known in the Philippines as the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machine (for the 2016 elections, these machines are now known as vote counting machines or VCMs).  

Deployed in each of the nearly-80,000 clustered precincts nationwide, the PCOS machines scan the ballots fed into them, then count the ovals that voters have shaded to vote for their preferred national and local candidates.

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

The PCOS machines 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 and certifications. It should be conducted by an international certification entity. The source codes should also be opened to accredited local groups and organizations. (FAQs: Why worry about PCOS code?)

In the run-up to the 2013 polls, the PCOS 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 PCOS 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.

Canvassing, transmission

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

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 PCOS machines to help transmit ERs, and installed in canvassing centers to receive ERs.

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

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 the 2016 polls, 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 officialy proclaim the winning President and Vice President.

Transmitted election results will also be posted via the Internet, via a website set up by the Comelec.

Bundling, unbundling components

For the 2010 elections, the whole AES system was bundled together or provided by one company, Smartmatic-TIM, which was leased to the Comelec in 2009 for P7.1 billion.

Smartmatic-TIM provided the main components of the automated election system – like the EMS, CCS, and ERTS – as well as over 80,000 PCOS machines and its deployment to polling precincts nationwide.

The Venezuela-based technology provider was also in charge of technical support on election day, in coordination with the Comelec's project management office (PMO).

In March 2012, the poll body chose to purchase the PCOS machines and related systems for P1.8 billion, in time for the 2013 polls.

The Comelec later decided to unbundle – or bid out to other companies – some components and services, like the provision for the ERTS and transmission modems, the deployment of voting machines, the packaging of ballots, and the establishment of a National Support Center.

Smartmatic was able to secure the contracts for the ERTS, transmission modems, the supply of CF cards, and the National Support Center.

Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez argued that having a bundled system is "one of the safer modes" of running a project. "It's something like a turnkey operation where you're getting everything you need for the system from just one provider."

In this case, Jimenez said, the seamlessness and interoperability of components are not an issue. But he noted that the challenges to this method are "more perception-based."

"As we saw in our experience, the challenges [to it] are more external: the perception that you gave the system lock, stock, and barrel to other people," said Jimenez.

Various groups and election watchdogs have objected to Smartmatic's participation in automating the elections. They also cast doubts on the reliability of Smartmatic's PCOS machines, especially after glitches – like "digital lines" appearing on scanned images of ballots – were reported in the news.

Meanwhile, Jimenez acknowledged the benefits of unbundling the system.

"Unbundling is good, because it addresses the people's perception," he said. "Second, essentially, it spreads the business around. You're not giving it all to one group. In the business sense, it's probably something businesses prefer, because they have an opportunity to get a piece of the action, which is not entirely bad."

He added, "It's also potentially good because it forces you to use 'alternative parts,'" likening it to repairing personal computers or PCs. "You could do that either passably well or exceptionally well. Potentially, it's an advantage."

However, Jimenez also noted the downside of this approach.

"You need to ensure interoperability. You need to have a strong systems integrator. You need to have a good, strong project management office, because you're dealing not with just one entity but with several entities," he explained.

2016 procurements

For the 2016 polls, the Comelec has held 4 major public biddings:

As of this writing, only the OMR and VVS procurements are ongoing, said Jimenez. The VVS public bidding is at the post-qualification stage, with Indra Sistemas vying to bag the contract.

However, the procurement for 23,000 more OMR machines faced another roadblock, as Smartmatic-TIM was recently disqualified by the Comelec bids and awards committee at the post-qualification stage.

The budget allotted for the OMR contract is P2.5 billion, while the budget for the VVS contract is P727 million.

The DRE procurement for pilot-testing was scrapped by the Comelec in late April, citing concerns by lawmakers about touchscreen voting and additional complications it might cause during the preparations for the 2016 polls.

Meanwhile, the bidding for the ERTS went back to the drawing board, after bidders complained about the low approved budget for the contract (ABC) amounting to P558 million.

In addition, the ERTS contract required the conduct of a site survey to ensure a 100% transmission rate. This is to avoid what happened in 2013, when only 76% of election results were transmitted to the transparency server, compared to 2010, when the rate was at 92%. (READ: Telcos: We're not to blame for 2013 transmission woes)

PCOS refurbishment

Aside from these public biddings, the Comelec also tackled the refurbishment and repairs on the existing 81,000 PCOS machines so that they could be reused in 2016.

The P268-million contract for it was directly awarded to Smartmatic-TIM days before the retirement of then-Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr and two commissioners on February 2, 2015.

The Comelec said it resorted to direct contracting because, among others, there was no more time for a public bidding, and there was "greater risk" in having third-party providers repair the Smartmatic-manufactured PCOS machines. (READ: Why Smartmatic got deal for PCOS repairs)

But the Supreme Court, acting on protests filed by poll watchdogs and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, nullified the Comelec-Smartmatic deal for PCOS refurbishments. The SC ruled that the Comelec failed to justify the awarding of the contract through direct contracting instead of a public bidding.

The Comelec is mulling 2 options in response to this ruling. One option is to bid out the contract to refurbish the old PCOS machines. The other option is to lease or purchase around 100,000 new machines, as the Comelec had said earlier it would not reuse the existing PCOS machines "without proper maintenance and repair."

But given that the 2016 elections are less than a year away, Jimenez said the Comelec is pursuing parallel bids so that it would be able to ensure the automation of the 2016 elections. –

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.