Can we handle automated elections?

Can we handle automated elections?

By Benito L. Teehankee

September 22, 2009

Managing For Society, The Manila Times

My two sons, Ricky (19) and Nico (turning 18), have registered to vote. As a dutiful father eager to introduce his children to the wonderful institution of democracy, I’ve reminded them how important these elections will be for their future. The democratic premise is as beautiful as it is simple: each citizen qualified to vote independently chooses, by secret vote, among qualified candidates who want to lead the government. Through this act, every citizen helps shape the future of the nation as the candidates chosen by the most voters get to serve as leaders.

But elections are never simple in the Philippines. As May 2010 draws near, I’ve become interested in how the elections are being organized, especially in view of the Automated Election System or AES. Acting on the mandate of the Election Modernization Law, the COMELEC is undertaking probably the biggest single information-technology related project in Philippine history. Already, a number of concerned groups claim to have identified weaknesses, vulnerabilities and outright flaws in the AES. In true democratic fashion, others have emerged to rebut these claims. The issues have been debated in cafes, blogs and the courts. Sifting through the claims, arguments and counter-arguments (with the occasional character attacks and conspiracy scenarios thrown in) is not for the faint of heart or those with short attention spans. But democracy was never for the timid anyway.

To learn more, I attended a forum on the AES on Saturday organized by the Lasallian Justice & Peace Commission (LJPC) and conducted by PAGBABAGO! (People’s Movement for Change). The speakers included Rosa Castillo, Bobby Tuazon and Pablo Manalastas of CENPEG (the UP-based Center for People

Empowerment in Governance). They explained in thought-provoking detail the many weaknesses they see in the system, including technical (design of the ballot, machine, software, etc.) and management (planning, verifiability, reliability, etc.) aspects. Jun Lozada, a co-founder of PAGBABAGO! and himself a communications engineer, also shared his analysis of why basic issues of the electoral process itself need to be addressed over and beyond the technical issues raised against the AES. The speakers gave recommendations on how to address their concerns ranging from an immediate and public review of the computer code to greater involvement of independent groups in the oversight and audit of the process.

So, can we handle automated elections? I honestly don’t know. For one thing, defenders of the AES were not around during the forum so there’s much more homework to do on my part. The situation seems to be fluid but time is slowly running out. One thing is clear: anyone who cares about the soundness of our democratic processes should be vigorously engaged with the issues related to not only the AES but the whole election process itself. A technical system is always embedded within the most important system of all—the human system. The limitations of technology, if prepared for, can be countered by human initiative which results in a more robust overall system. Already, there is word that system adjustments are underway as a response to early concerns raised by critics.

A more fundamental question, therefore, is this: Can we work together as a people to make the AES work? I have no doubt that the system has weaknesses, as all systems do. But can we prioritize the most critical among confirmed weaknesses and implement countermeasures in time to have reasonable integrity in the electoral process as a whole? Lozada seems optimistic that there is time to do so. I happen to agree, but then my wife says I’m a hopeless optimist. Besides, the result of failed elections come June 2010 may be too dreadful to contemplate.

Dr. Ben Teehankee is associate professor of business and governance and director of the Center for Social Responsibility for Human Development at De La Salle University. He may be e-mailed at