Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Computerizing Philippine Elections

A true computerization of Philippine elections will utilize computer and communications technology in all stages of the electoral process: during registration of voters, the actual casting of ballots, the subsequent canvassing of votes, and the final tabulation and reporting of election results. It can not be just the use of stand-alone automated counting machines, namely PCs with optical mark readers (OMRs) to count votes made on paper ballots, because then, the transmission of precinct results to municipal, provincial, and national tabulation centers becomes a major problem. Stand alone PCs is the technology of the 1980s, and would have been appropriate election technology at that time. Now, we live in the connected world of the twenty-first century, in which people make financial transactions over secure web connections. If secure web is good enough to be trusted for making financial transactions, then it is good enough to be trusted to properly count our votes during elections.

The Election Modernization Act (RA 8436) declares as policy of the State: "to ensure free, orderly, honest, peaceful and credible elections, and assure the secrecy and sanctity of the ballot in order that the results of elections, plebiscites, referenda, and other electoral exercises shall be fast, accurate and reflective of the genuine will of the people". To carry out this policy, "the Commission on Elections (Comelec) ... is authorized to use an automated election system ... for the process of voting, counting of votes and canvassing/consolidation of results of the national and local elections ...". RA 8436 goes further and commands Comelec to " ... acquire automated counting machines, computer equipment, devices and materials and adopt new forms and printing materials ...". I do not understand why a law with such noble purpose needs to specify the use of automated counting machines, an inappropriate technology in these Internet times. The Comelec should respect the policy, the spirit of the law, but implement a mechanism that is more appropriate today.

Internet Infrastructure: Election Hardware

All over the country, one finds computer rental shops that rent out computer time to walk-in customers for use in Internet access, gaming, chat, word processing, etc. Almost all of the better schools have Internet-connected computer laboratories. The ExpressNet and BancNet automatic teller machines are all over the country, and are all connected in a huge nationwide network. In the homes of many families, one finds computers that can connect to the Internet via dial-up telephone lines or via faster always-on DSL connections. Many coffee shops and similar establishments have wifi hotspots that provide Internet access to customers who bring laptops or wifi-enabled mobile phones and PDAs. Many of us carry in our persons mobile phones that can browse the Internet via GPRS or 3G. The connected infrastructure is already in place, except that ExpressNet and BancNet may have to install a temporary Internet gateway during election periods. So there exists locally an essentially connected network of PCs, laptops, PDAs, and mobile phones, that can be used during elections. All that is needed are Comelec server farms connected to the Internet, and software commissioned by Comelec to serve the secure registration web pages and the secure election web pages.

Comelec can rent computer time from all these computer rental shops, schools, banks, and wifi hotspots. It can pay at PHP25.00 per hour per PC, or at PHP2.00 per voter, or some other reasonable price.

The Comelec does not even have to buy the server farm that will be used only during elections, and will be unused for the three years between elections. Instead, the Presidential Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT) can acquire the server farm for the government to be used regularly by all government agencies, and during the election season to carry the additional load of registration and election.

Internet Infrastructure: Election Software

On the PCs, laptops, PDAs, and mobile phones, all we need is a web browser program, like Internet Explorer for WindowsOS, and Firefox for WindowsOS and LinuxOS. Internet-capable PDAs and mobile phones already have browser programs built into them. If the Comelec wants to standardize on the OS and browser program, for uniformity of user interface, it could adopt Knoppix or Ubuntu, which are both free boot-from-CD LinuxOS. Every school, computer rental shop, Internet cafe, etc can be given a few UbuntuCDs with which to boot all their PCs, already pre-configured for the special needs of Comelec registration/election.

On each Comelec server in the server farm, we need a database of registered voters, which can be implemented using PostgreSQL or MySQL, both of which have free versions. Also, the CICT or Comelec programmers must write the secure registration and election web pages. They can use PHP on Apache/SSL, both of which are free. If the CICT or Comelec can not afford the cost of programmers, then we can use student programmers from UP, Ateneo, DLSU, Mapua, UST, etc. The government can save a lot of money this way, and the students can submit their programs as their BS degree theses.

With this kind of infrastructure already in place, or easily made available, the government can affordably implement the mandate of RA8436.

Voter Registration over Secure Web

Comelec will designate which among the many computer rental shops, schools, Internet cafes, etc will be used as official registration and election centers. Comelec will determine which computers in these registration centers can be used for registration and election. Let us call these Comelec-approved PCs the ComelecPCs. Voters who will register or vote will not go to their original precincts in the public schools, but instead, go to these Comelec-designated registration and election centers.

The registration program will be running on the Comelec server farm, and will be accessed using the ComelecPCs, under the supervision of Comelec-designated registrars. In the first year of implementation, Comelec does not have to issue voters' IDs, since it does not seem to have the budget for it. Registration will therefore consist of entering the voter's data on the webform, assignment of a voter's ID number, and selection by the voter of his secret password, which only the voter knows. When registration is complete, the voter is given a slip of paper with his name and voter's ID number. The voter may choose to write his secret password on this slip, if he chooses, so that he does not forget his password. To vote, all that the voter needs is his ID number and his secret password.

At any time after registration, the voter may access the Comelec server farm, using the Comelec URL, to change his secret password.

After the first year of implementation, the Comelec may choose to issue SmartCard voters' IDs, which contain computer-readable data about the voter, such as voter's name, voter's ID number, and other useful data. Then the ComelecPCs need to be equipped with SmartCard readers, and that will mean additional expenses.

Voting over Secure Web

On election day, the Comelec server farm will accept votes during the usual voting hours, and stop accepting votes at the end of the voting period. A voter can go to his assigned ComelecPC, and vote using that computer, or he can stay at home and vote using his home PC, or vote using his wifi-enabled laptop at a wifi-hotspot Cafe, or vote anywhere using his mobile phone. This way, no goon can stop a voter from casting his vote. The government must ensure that the Comelec-designated election centers with the ComelecPCs is properly secured from goon-threat.

The official election centers will have Comelec-designated election staff, to help voters who may not be computer-literate.

To vote on election day, a voter must login to the Comelec election URL, by supplying his voter's ID number and his password. Further, he must authenticate himself as a human voter, and not a computer program casting a vote, by typing in text that he is asked to read from a graphic. If the voter forgets his voter's ID number, he can give his name and address, and the webpage will give him his voter's ID number. Then he can login with his voter's ID number and password. If he forgets his password, then the voter can not vote at home. He must then go to his designated election center, and show proof of his identity to the Comelec registrar in the center. The voter's ID number, and two picture IDs (any two of passport, driver's license, SSS ID, GSIS ID, BIR ID), should be sufficient proof of identity. These proofs of identity are scanned, and uploaded to the Comelec website, as part of the voter's login process.

On successful login, the webserver program determines the voter's town, district, and province, and gives him a webpage showing all candidates, their pictures, and a one-liner on their program of government. The voter just clicks his choices, and when he is satisfied he clicks on the SUBMIT button, and his vote is cast.

At the end of the voting period, the webserver program computes town, district, province, and national summaries, and displays the result in a webpage for the world to see.


With such an election system in place, election results are known immediately after the polls close.

There will be problems, like voter's selling the voter's ID numbers and passwords to the highest bidders, or goons controlling an election center, and forcibly extracting voters' ID numbers and passwords from everyone, and voting in their place. No election system will ever be perfect.

The method proposed here, though imperfect, is affordable and workable, and is much better than the current system of manual elections, where even ghosts can vote.


punzki said...

I like your proposal, Doc; you have almost everything well thought out. I don't agree with having students write election software though. It's going to be hard to make them accountable should something go wrong; after all, they're just students. At some point, real professionals will have to step in.

crix said...

(Confession) I haven't really read the entire article yet, although I just browsed through it, anyway, here goes:

I just think that it's a little bit too idealistic. For one, in our school organization alone, some people have a hard time in following the rules on our extremely simple online registration - take note that these are already Ateneans. I have no idea what the percentages are of computer literate people in our country, but I'm pretty sure that the number of people who haven't even seen a computer yet outnumber those who are somewhat computer literate. A vast majority of our voters come from the lower class, or the masses. I mean, some of them even have a hard time with the current voting process, with the inking of the nails and all. I just think that most of the people don't have the capacity to comprehend voter's ID, and safe keeping SmartCards and all that - as of the time of this writing.

I guess what must be done first is to teach (or preach?) computers to the masses, so they'll also learn to trust them (computers) as well. Although it can be extremely secure, I'm pretty sure that in the state that our country is now, a lot will be doubting the capabilities and security of this machine, specially if it's used in something as extravagant as the National Elections.

Kaso lang, bilib pa rin ako sa plano ni Doc! Hehe, kaso tingin ko lang sobrang hirap nga lang talaga... but with Doc Mana around, parang nothing is impossible naman eh! :)

carlo said...

I remember Nene Pimentel waving a diskette, which he says diskettes like those may be tampered. I think it's only in the Philippines wherein miraculous things happen during elections vote counting.

Is it also possible that our leaders are preventing the computerization of elections? Hmm.

Doc, you should replace Abalos in COMELEC! :D

rychu said...

I see 2 major impediments in this great idea: infrastructure and literacy.

From a standpoint of highly urbanized cities, it is possible to do a networked system for the Philippine elections. However, it ends there because our country is not yet 100% connected. Some far-flung barrios still do not have electricity and some do not have phone lines (maybe voting via mobile phones is more feasible but I'm digressing).

My mom who is 52 years old knows nothing about computers and she cannot even turn it on. For sure, most of the Filipinos suffer the same plight. Not all schools are equipped with computers and not all possess computer education programs. Once again, the rural areas are mostly affected by this.

Computerizing Philippine Elections still seems utopian at the moment. But, we never know what happens. I guess we'll see.

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