The elections, technology, and pandemics


Monchito Ibrahim

In Philippine politics, losing candidates do not lose elections; they were cheated. From the time the country started using these voting systems in 2010, these silent workers would carry the brunt of the blames. Surprisingly, we barely heard any of those after the last elections. It seems that, finally, we have accepted that the systems are really capable of performing the main task expected of them – counting the votes properly and helping maintain the integrity of the election process. Can we then expect these systems to provide the same or better performance in future elections? Or a better question would be – what if the elections were scheduled sometime in February when most of the country was under ECQ, would these systems be of use at all?

There is no question that for a system that has been in use since the 2010 elections, it performed relatively well except for some hiccups related to the aging hardware. We understand that, in addition to the original machines bought by COMELEC, a number of them were recently leased from the supplier. Should the election body just replace that old hardware or is it the right time for it to start looking for a new election system? A new system may be capable of handling elections even during pandemics where voters have to vote from home. I guess that is easier said than done.

Inclusive, fair, and secure elections are the foundation of a healthy democracy. COMELEC has to ensure that these values are put into practice whatever the election conditions may be. The challenge of choosing an electronic voting system is not only security but also protecting the secrecy of the ballot, a basic foundation of free and fair elections. Today, most election system experts say there is no known technology that can really guarantee the secrecy, security, and verifiability of marked ballots transmitted via the internet. This is the holy grail of electronic election systems.

We need to understand the differences between currently available election systems. What we have in the Philippines are vote-counting machines that are capable of storing the counted votes and transmitting them to servers, usually situated in another place, for consolidation. It produces adequate audit trails that, in addition to the actual paper ballot, make it easy to verify. For a technology that was developed in the ‘60s, the system still works pretty well. The system in its current configuration, however, is not designed to allow people to vote without leaving their homes.

Other systems make it possible for voters to directly input their votes to regional or central servers. These online voting systems are currently in use in some countries but are showing some areas of vulnerability and seem fundamentally insecure. Security vulnerabilities include potential denial of service attacks, malware infections, and privacy concerns, and usually do not provide a paper trail for auditing.

Blockchain-based voting systems are also beginning to emerge and are actually in use in some states in the US. It relies on a decentralized, distributed digital ledger in the same way that smart contracts and cryptocurrency are based. I recently learned that a Filipino mother-and-son team has actually developed a blockchain-based voting system. This voting technology is showing some potential and may actually become the future of election systems. But at this time, some of these systems are showing some of the vulnerabilities inherent in internet voting such as malware infection that is capable of altering votes on the voter’s device before the ballot is transmitted. Future systems using secure hardware could provide additional security but these systems are still in their infancy.

If COMELEC has to start looking for a new election system soon, the ideal system may have to be one that would allow voting to be done securely using a smart device such as a mobile phone so people may not need to go to a voting center to vote. A key feature of the system is the capability for end-to-end verification that would allow the voters to see their vote was properly recorded and tabulated and show that the transmitted vote count matches the casted votes. Its software may have to rely on encryption in order to do that.

Elections in the 21st century have been made a bit complicated not just because of new kinds of threats brought about by new technologies but, for example, by possible vote manipulation coming from parties outside the country, the impact of disinformation using social media, and the inherent advantage of moneyed-candidates who are able to buy more TV campaign spots. Then there are also those allegations of vote-buying.

The election technology landscape is not that simple. But if we have to start looking for a new system, there is nothing wrong with dreaming of a system that would allow us to vote using our smartphone where we can just log in, cast our vote, and capture a screenshot of our vote, and move on.

The author is the lead convenor of the Alliance for Technology Innovators for the Nation (ATIN), vice president of the Analytics Association of the Philippines, and vice president, UP System Information Technology Foundation.