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Automated Elections:
How a young blood sees it
by Lois Belingon

Elections in the Philippines could be mistaken for festivals because of the colorful posters that litter every nook and cranny, the noisy parties that are held, the street and live performances coupled with the playing of campaign jingles by almost every vehicle passing through our main thoroughfares, and even the roads that are only travelled during campaign season.

While these remain unchanged, celebrations now last only for few days as the proclamation of winners has been cut short.

Thanks to automation.

How the automation began

According to the Commission on Elections website detailing among other things the history of poll automation, the idea of modernizing the Philippine elections was first conceived in 1992 at a planning seminar by Comelec officials in Tagaytay City. This was during the term of former Comelec Chair Christian Monsod.

The following year, local and international groups conducted studies to assess technologies that would make modernization of elections possible. The use of an optical mark sense technology was then recommended to the Comelec.

The first computerized poll system was used during the elections in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao on Sept. 9, 1996. That political exercise saw the winning candidates proclaimed within a span of 72 hours.

Banking on this milestone in the country’s political history, Republic Act 8436 was passed on Dec. 22, 1997. The law provided for the partial automated election system, which was used in the May 11, 1998 elections in the ARMM provinces: Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi.

The law was then amended through RA 9369, passed on Jan. 23, 2007, providing for what is now the Automated Election System (AES) or simply the automated polls.

First national automated polls

Uncertainty gripped the nation on May 10, 2010 when the first national automated elections was implemented. Fears of a total failure of election loomed as faulty Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines, malfunctioning compact flash cards, discarded digital security features, and other glitches were incurred even before the election day itself.

However, the public was relieved when national television networks began broadcasting election results.

The 2010 automated polls awed the voters, the candidates, and their supporters as the winning presidential candidate was proclaimed in just four days, the shortest they have witnessed so far because with the manual voting system, it usually took a month before candidates for national positions are proclaimed.

With the automation came the elimination of the dagdag-bawas, one of the most rampant forms of electoral fraud. It involves alleged transferring of votes from one candidate to another.

The PCOS machines count ballots in behalf of human hands. The technology totals results that will be transmitted to the Board of Canvassers. Nullified votes due to poor handwriting are also avoided as the voters only needed to shade the ovals corres-ponding to their bets’ names in the ballots.

How the youth can help

On May 13, voters will again deal with the AES and the PCOS machines. It is presumed that voters, especially those who participated in the 2010 elections are already familiar with the machines.

Comelec Assistant Regional Election Director and Acting City Election Officer Reddy Balarbar describes the AES process as one that is relatively easy to follow, except for those with difficulties in vision and the elderly.

“Ang problema natin diyan, ‘yung mga mahina ang mata at yung mga matatanda na medyo na-nginginig na ang kamay,” he said.

The Comelec relies with the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, cause-oriented groups, and other volunteers to assist the vulnerable sectors on election day.

Balarbar also urged the active involvement of the youth in the upcoming elections by being vocal in their observations.

“Speak your mind,” he encouraged.

“Kunwari ‘yung kandidato ay kumpare ng father niyo, at hindi naman talaga deserving, sabihin niyo sa kanila.”

He also asked the youth to maximize the use of the social media and help in reporting violations committed by the candidates, their supporters, and even the public and other concerned agencies.

“Sa mga kabataan na mahilig sa Twitter at Facebook, (gamitin niyo ang mga ito) para ipakita niyo ‘yung mga violations.”

Public participation

Casting one’s vote is not simply exercising a right. It dwells more on the active participation of the public in molding society and choosing its caretakers. Caution, therefore, must always be observed.

The Comelec has been emphasizing that the cut-off for casting votes is 7 p.m. and only one ballot will be given for each voter. The voters, therefore, should be careful not to tear, fold, spill liquid, or make unnecessary marks on the election sheet.

Also, the PCOS machines will only read the ballots specifically allotted to it, meaning, these cannot be read by PCOS machines in other precincts.

Voters are also warned not to shade more than the required number of candidates for each position because such will be considered null. Taking out the marking pen is considered an election offense and anyone who does this can face imprisonment of one to six years.

Kenneth Dave Ambaycan, a political science graduate and outgoing grand chancellor of Politis, a student organization of the University of Baguio, meanwhile rates the past automated election as successful. He attributes to automation the boost in the participation of the youth in the elections.

“Mas lalo silang nagkaroon ng interes sa pagboto noong nakaraang eleksyon. At sa [kasalukuyang] eleksyon, mas na-eengganyo sila na lumahok dahil mas napadali ang pag-elect ng ating mga opisyal,” he said.

However, he also pointed out the difficulty of bringing the PCOS machines in remote areas in the region.

“Ang naging hirap lang noon ay ‘yung pagpapadala ng mga PCOS machines sa mga liblib na barangay, lalung-lalo na sa Mountain Province,” he said.

Ambaycan advised his fellow youth to carefully evaluate the candidates based on their ability to lead. Another criterion is the manner the candidates rendered service to the community, especially to the youth.

“Dapat panindigan niyo na hindi kayo kukuha ng pera mula sa mga pulitiko,” he also said.

Jason Balag-ey, chair of the city’s Brotherhood for Peace, pointed out a crucial deficiency in the voter’s education drive.

“Sa mga first-time voters, medyo mahina yata ang voters’ education natin, especially in Baguio,” he said.

While Balag-ey describes the AES as a youth-friendly form of election, he is pushing that voters’ education go beyond simply describing the process. He said there is a need to ensure that the people are informed why over-votes are nullified while under-votes are counted.

“Dapat ine-explain natin sa mga kabataan hindi lang ‘yung pag-shade nila sa balota. I-explain din natin sa kanila kung bakit 12 lang ang iboboto nating senador, bakit isa ang congressman, bakit isa ang mayor, bakit isa ang vice mayor, at bakit 12 din ang councilors.”

In other areas, there are only eight candidates for councilors so the voters should only shade eight.

He asked the Comelec, as the key agency responsible for the elections, to spearhead voters’ education campaigns and increase the frequency of PCOS machine demonstrations.

Educational institutions should also help by teaching a deeper understanding on elections and politics.

Reports of overheating PCOS machines, risks of delay or failure in the transmission of election results by the machines, and unused ballots discarded after the cut-off time are areas of concern as well.

Balag-ey asked the youth to realize that this is their generation and that going out on election day will make the other sectors realize that the youth also plays a major role in the society.

“Vote according to your conscience, according to platforms, and according to the change that you desire,” he added.

Inseparable from the right to vote is also the duty to be vigilant in ensuring that votes cast are really counted in. “Once we cast our vote, we have the obligation to guard it,” he said.

The AES’ help in minimizing opportunities for electoral fraud indeed gave a boost to the public’s confidence in the elections.

The PCOS machine – a piece of technology that cannot be accused of personal agenda – now counts every ballot instead of numerous hands whose motives cannot be determined.

Allegations of systemic fraud from the last elections continue to pester the AES. The quick proclamation of winners is not also a guarantee that the elections is without bias and error.

Vigilance is still needed in order to gain the full confidence of an inquisitive populace that does not only accept but also evaluates the change introduced.
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