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Monday, May 3, 2010

Poll Automation Backgrounder

Poll Automation Backgrounder
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How Poll Automation in the Philippines Works

May 2010 Elections Voting Procedure


Renato Bautista, Jr.

With the computerization of the May 2010 elections, voters and election officials will be dealing with new procedures and technology in the casting and counting of votes.

After the Supreme Court removed the last hurdle to poll automation in Roque v. Comelec, the computerization of the national and local elections in May 2010 will finally take place. Consequently, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) will be implementing new procedures in the casting of votes and counting of ballots, which would require voters and election officials alike to adjust to these changes by learning how poll automation works.

Basic Feature of the Automated Election System

Under the automated election system (AES) that will be implemented pursuant to Republic Act No. 8436 (Poll Modernization Law), as amended by Republic Act No. 9369, the counting, tally, transmission and consolidation of votes will be done by computers. For this purpose, the Comelec has purchased 82,200 voting machines from the foreign company Smartmatic, which the Comelec calls Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines.

The tedious counting process under the manual system, which takes weeks or even months before the results are known, will no longer be used. All votes cast at every precinct will automatically be counted by the PCOS machine at the closing of polls and the results will be transmitted electronically to the appropriate canvassing/consolidation centers, which will be a big departure from the past where the ballots and election returns from every precinct are transported physically to canvassing centers.

The PCOS Technology

The brand of PCOS machine that will be used in the May 2010 elections is the SAES (Smartmatic Auditable Election System) 1800. The SAES 1800 is a type of optical mark reader machine, which is the technology being commonly used in counting the results of computerized examinations, such as the NCEE, where the examinee marks an answer by shading an oval or bubble next to an item in a multiple choice test.

Pre-Election Procedures

To ensure that the PCOS machines are accurate and functioning well, at least three days before election day, the Comelec will conduct a dry run of the PCOS machines by inviting members of the public to accomplish test ballots. These ballots will be counted manually and election returns showing the results will be prepared. Then the same set of ballots will be counted by the PCOS machines and the results will be compared with that of the manual counting. If the results are the same the participants will certify the veracity of the results by signing on the printed elections returns.

The PCOS machines will be delivered to the 80,136 clustered precincts around the country where they will be stored and sealed until election day, which will be the only time when they will be opened and in the presence of the public. During this time the machines will not be connected to any transmission lines to prevent hackers from having access to them. The public, particularly candidates and their representatives, can secure the area where the machines will be stored.

Pre-Voting Procedure

For every voting precinct, there will be a Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) - consisting of a chairman, poll clerk and a third member - that will supervise the elections. Before voting begins, the BEI will initialize the PCOS machine in the presence of the public, usually poll watchers and other election watch groups, and show that the ballot box is empty. Initialization means the BEI will make sure that the machine is zeroed out or there are no votes or entries stored in the machine's memory. An initialization report will thereafter be generated by the machine as proof of this fact.

Paper-Based System

Since voting is done through optical mark reader-type machines, paper ballots will still be used during the voting process. In countries using the direct recording electronic (DRE) machines, voting is done by touching selections on the computer screen, like in touch screen ATMs.

The ballot will contain the names of candidates for every position, and the parties under the party-list system. There are ovals opposite each name and party. The ballot will be used front and back. Considering the number of positions to be filled from the national to the local level, as well as the number of candidates, it is expected that the ballot will be long.

The Voting Process

Voting in an automated election is simple and fast. The procedure is as follows:

  • Voter's name is verified on the list of registered voters;
  • Voter is given a ballot, a secrecy folder (to cover voter in making his/her choices) and a pen;
  • Voter proceeds to a voting booth or spot;
  • Voter darkens or shades the ovals opposite the names of candidates and parties of his/her choice;
  • Voter feeds or inserts the completed ballot on the PCOS machine ballot slot (the ballot can be fed to the machine in any orientation: top, bottom or either end);
  • The machine reads or scans the votes (marked ovals) on both sides of the ballot simultaneously;
  • The scanned ballot is ejected through the other end of the machine and is dropped on the ballot box; and
  • Voter returns the secrecy folder and pen to the BEI, his/her right index finger nail is marked with an indelible ink, and affixes his/her thumbmark on the computerized voter list.

Even if the voter fails to completely shade the ovals opposite the candidates of his or her choice, the PCOS machine is designed to still scan such marking. It is, of course, desirable for the voter to completely shade the ovals. Also, the PCOS machine have an LCD screen which will indicate if the ballot is accepted or rejected. This will prevent spoiled votes.

In manual voting, the voter has to write the names of candidates and parties which he or she will vote for. This is time consuming and prone to errors and confusion, such as when a name is misspelled, there are identical names, or the names are confusingly similar. Under the automated system, these problems are immediately resolved as all the voter has to do is mark the names of the candidates of his or her choice, whose names have been pre-printed on the ballot.

Post-Voting Procedure

When the poll closes, the BEI will perform what is called a "close function" by touching the appropriate button on the machine's LCD screen. This will prevent the insertion of additional ballots after voting has ended. After the machine closes the poll at a particualr precinct, it automatically counts all the votes cast and thereafter, an Election Return (ER) will be printed in certain number of copies. The ER is a report on the result of voting in each precinct wherein the total votes cast for each candidate are tallied.

Transmission of Results

After the ERs are printed, the transmission cable is connected to the PCOS machine for the transmission of results from a particular precinct. The results are transmitted by the PCOS machines electronically to the City/Municipal Board of Canvassers (BOC) via canvassing/consolidation machines (CCMs), which will consolidate the results from all precincts within the city or municipality. Results will also be transmitted electronically to the Comelec central office. The same process will take place from the city or municipality to the province, then from the province to Congress and Comelec.

As can be seen from this process, the PCOS machines will only be online during the transmission of results to minimize the window for hacking the system.

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