IBON FEATURES | COMMENTARY | The state has become captive of a private firm by allowing it to have full authority over the technology and the whole voting process, in effect losing its power to ensure that the exercise is truly democratic
IBON Features—The 2013 elections are over, but the voting public has yet to get over the rampant irregularities brought about by the automated election system (AES). In fact, voters have become disconnected and unable to verify their votes, making this year’s elections the least transparent in the country’s history.
Reports of precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machine malfunctions and problems were widespread on election day, affecting the overall conduct of the polls nationwide. Massive reports of machine malfunction, ballot rejection and unexplained breakdown were monitored in various precincts across the country. With initial poll results now being released, the public has yet to be assured that the votes cast are being counted properly.
Among the most essential aspects of elections are its credibility and transparency. Unfortunately, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) did not deliver on the most effective areas to ensure these: There was no independent review of the source code despite calls from electoral watchdogs nor a parallel manual count to verify the automated results. While doubts on the credibility of the polls persist, the Comelec is quick to dismiss questions on the integrity of the elections. Private contractor Smartmatic International Corp., which provided the almost Php2.6-billion automation system for the country’s polls for the second time, also called the irregularities “minor glitches”.
But the problems encountered in this year’s elections were the same ones in 2010 when the country held its first ever automated polls, even worse according to poll watchdogs. As in the last elections, the Comelec refused to conduct an independent and comprehensive review of the source code, which would have ensured the reliability of the software. A genuine source code review would have determined how Smartmatic’s technology would read and count the ballots.
The supposed source code review announced by the Comelec, done a few days before the elections, became insignificant. When mainstream media relayed bloated results of the initial tally on election day, Smartmatic intervened and edited the source code script to come up with the proper count. The act of tweaking in the middle of canvassing only highlighted the deep flaws of the software, and raised more questions on the trustworthiness of the automated election system. It also raised serious issues on Comelec’s accountability and the seeming immunity of private vendor Smartmatic.
As in the 2010 elections, the irregularities of the 2013 election also highlight the phenomenon of “privatized elections”, a term used to describe the widening role that private firms play in running elections worldwide. In the US where allegations of electoral fraud are rampant, poll groups have criticized privatized elections as undermining a very public and supposedly democratic exercise. Other developed countries like Germany and the Netherlands have reconsidered the use of privatized poll automation, which violates the public nature of elections. Moreover, IT specialists have cited that 18 out of 30 countries that held automated elections returned to manual elections in recent years.
The clear violation of having privatized elections is the subversion of the people’s right to holding a democratic exercise. The process of voting, ensuring the ballots, proper tallying, consolidating, holding an independent monitoring of the results, and making government account for the elections has been undermined because the government surrendered this whole process to private firm Smartmatic. But the task of modernizing the polls should not change the public nature of elections and should retain its fundamental components such as fairness, accountability and transparency. With the present setup, however, the state has become captive of a private firm by allowing it to have full authority over the technology and the whole voting process. The state has also lost its power to ensure that the exercise is truly democratic.
While ensuring a quick count of results should be a priority, the use of privately-owned election technology brings about serious problems. Private automation technology becomes untrustworthy because of its nature as private property immune to public scrutiny. It makes the elections more vulnerable to fraud and manipulation—on top of traditional forms of cheating such as vote buying and harassment, among others. As a US-based policy group noted, it is impossible to establish the legitimacy of poll results without government control of elections and public scrutiny of the election process.
In fact, reports of anomalies on the election software and the apparent immunity of private election vendors are not unique to the country. For instance in Florida, a local court ruled in favor of private firm Election Systems and Software Company, which denied public access to its voting machines and software for examination because they were supposedly trade secrets and covered by privacy rights. In 2008, the Sequoia Voting Systems blocked an independent examination of its voting machines, which allegedly reported inaccurate results in a local elections in New Jersey.
US poll groups have described privatized elections as an example of government abandoning its responsibility and where elections become increasingly the task of profit-seeking companies, using technology that cannot be examined. Truly, allowing a private firm to participate in a crucial public exercise such as the national elections has not brought about transparent and credible elections but has only worsened the basic problems of electoral fraud.
The modernization of Philippine elections is undoubtedly an urgent task for the state. However, this should promote transparency, credibility and accountability in elections, and should not favor only a few politicians or private profit-seeking election firms but the general public. IBON Features