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Nov 27

The Explainer: Automated elections and solutions that might work

That was a scene from the HBO documentary, “Hacking democracy.” California officials discuss how the integrity of companies involved in automation, matters as much as the law.

Because of your interest in last week’s episode, we’re going to discuss automating elections some more tonight. This time, having identified the problem, let’s take a look at solutions that might work.

 

I’m Manolo Quezon, The Explainer.

I.

 

Archeologists in Greece to this day, find shards of pottery with names scratched on them. These were the ballots of the Ancient Greeks, whose ideas of democracy have been inherited, refined, and redefined over the centuries.

If last week, we concentrated on the need for technology to conform to the democratic principle of “One Man, One Vote,” this week we’ll focus on the practical aspects of harnessing technology to purify our system of suffrage.

Last Monday, the Philippine Daily Inquirer carried a story that reported that after six years of technological research, and more than $4 billion spent by the US government on new machinery and the overhaul of the voting system, America’s still far away from ensuring every vote counts. In Florida alone, discrepancies in reporting voting results affected 60,000 votes. In Colorado, up to 20,000 people gave up trying to vote after online systems to verify voter registrations kept crashing. In Arkansas, when election officials tried to tally the votes in one county, the numbers reported changed each time –by more than 30,000 votes. Now is this a reflection of democracy being subverted by technology?

 

But what is Democracy anyway?

 

Democracy is not a religion, even though we would want the Constitution and the Law to have a kind of Biblical authority and majesty.

Neither is democracy purely an ideology, for it allows all ideologies to be freely expressed by anyone, but not imposed on anyone.

On a practical level, perhaps the best description of Democracy is that it is a technology for organizing and running human governments and societies based on a kind of political numerology.  Just as automobiles run on the principles of internal combustion technology, democratic societies have an internal operating system that depends heavily on numbers and rules involving numbers.

When we look under the hood, so to speak, we find a Machinery that involves elections and voting and numbers of all kinds as a means of selecting leaders and deciding questions and issues at all levels of the political experience.

Everywhere we look in the Constitution, for example, we find mathematical principles like —

“Every man is equal before the Law” —

“One Man, One Vote!” —

“Majority wins” —

 

Fractions, decimals and percentages are to be found in the most strategic provisions of the Constitution–

Half of the electorate plus one vote suffices to ratify the Constitution and a plurality elects the President.

One third of the House is required to impeach the President.

Two Thirds of the Senate are needed to convict.

Three fourths of all the Members of Congress required to propose amendments or revisions.

12% of the voters required to propose amendments by people’s initiative.

 

And of course elections are a veritable sea of numbers, starting with the number of registered voters expected to reach 50 million by 2010, voting in 250,000 precincts, in over 1600 municipalities and 80 provinces. Plus one Autonomous Region of Muslim separatists.

As Philippine Democracy forges ahead in its second century of existence, the sheer magnitude and complexity of electoral exercises involving that many human beings, and the accusations of cheating in past elections, has created a clamor to modernize the election system.

 

AUTOMATION is the buzz word that people have reached for, hoping they will have in their grasp a Deus Ex Machina that will end the quest for a perfectly secure, completely free and fair election system.

But if there has been a catastrophic erosion of public trust in an election system run by Men,  what chance is there they will put their faith in Machines run by Mathematics and controlled by that strange race called Computer Programmers?

If there is anything we are more suspicious of than a thinking, scheming human being, it is a thinking Machine that has been programmed by a human being.

It is ironic that in our Technological Age, such suspicions of technology are not only widespread among the human beings, they are deeply rooted and often justified.  Especially when one reviews the history of spectacular failures among the best laid automations plans of Nerds and Men. Who can forget for example, how the first attempts to use automated counting machines in Mindanao were foiled by the simple sabotage of pouring water on them?  And even in present day America, scandalous and hilarious reports of hackable, cheatable, dagdag-bawasable automated election systems abound in the Media.

Of course, no one ever even thinks about it, or raises such a fuss when automation Technologies actually work as expected and as advertised in the modern world, such as in the realms of banking, online publishing, telecommunications, and even automated gambling like the Lotto.

The paradoxes of the Computer Age is that the quest for Answers is best conducted in the context of a search for the right questions.

In a democratic election, what is it exactly, whose security we want to ensure?  What is the nature of the information that must be collected, counted, added, transmitted, verified, secured and proclaimed as the will of the people and the voice of God?  How can something that can undergo all of these processes be guaranteed to be immutable and incorruptible?  What is the meaning of verification in a digital world?

Can a modernized, automated election system be established all at once, perhaps purchased off the shelf from another country and implemented largely complete and ready-made, as Senator Dick Gordon envisions it?

Or must it be developed in pieces, perhaps by local computer experts and professionals, evolving over time and implemented gradually in stages, with a healthy dose of skepticism, testing and verification along the way, as Senator Serge Osmena and Senator Aquilino Pimentel suggest?

In some ways, the Philippines is actually ahead of most countries in facing the challenge of modernizing the electoral system, primarily because we have figured out all the ways of doing it wrong. But no one in the world has really figured out yet how to do it all right, though many certainly do it better.  Everyone suspects that the solution lies in resolving that Love-Hate Relationship between Man and Machine, which is full of suspicion and ignorance, but also of hope and fascination.  Since Filipinos are experts at love-hate relationships, we have great expectations that the next big breakthrough in democratic technology may be accomplished by them.

 

II.

 

(1:17:32-1:18:00)

That was another scene from the documentary film, “Hacking democracy.” An American election official shares his opinion, after seeing a counting machine fail, that communities need to take charge of the best methods to adopt.

Since we learned last week that in our consensus-deprived nation, at least one election-related consensus exists, and it is, that our democracy works right up to the precinct level, then what solutions can found, that make use of what we do right. And furthermore, which include our election authority, the Comelec, in the solution, and not as a permanent part of the problem? I’d like to devote this portion of the program to one solution as proposed by Gust Lagman.

Gus has a PowerPoint and let’s ask him to run through it…

 

My view

 

In 2004, the Social Weather Stations estimated that 900,000 Filipinos were disenfranchised, which means they couldn’t, or weren’t allowed, to vote. That’s as big a scandal as the controversies that have surrounded the national results since. It’s as important to be able to vote, as it is to have your vote accurately counted.

Proposals to count votes properly then, need to include means to ensure everyone who should be able to vote, can vote. Some progress is being made, but it may require more time before sensible proposals, such as a national i.d. card which could serve as a voter’s i.d., overcome the mistrust with which they’re currently being viewed.

But let me close with something I strongly believe we should resist. That is, to view any and all voting reform, from the perspective of mistrust of our fellow citizens.

In “The Vote of the Poor,” recently published by the Ateneo’s Institute of Philippine Culture, our humblest fellow citizens tell us something interesting. Most will take money to vote for a certain candidate, but as long as the voting involves the secret ballot, most intend to vote not for the person they’re paid to vote for, but the person they want to vote for. And this to me explains why the manipulation of voting results has to take place through padding and shaving the results after precinct results are tabulated. The problem is not how our citizenry votes –its how their votes get subverted by the professionals.

 

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