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Government / Central Government / Feature / Finance / E-Gov

The Philippines’ e-election miracle

The critics said the whole thing was a disaster waiting to happen. But once the dust had settled on May 11th 2010, observers were hailing the Philippines' first e-election as a ‘miracle’.


The doomsayers were very nearly right. Just six days before the first automated election in Filipino history, the Commission on Elections (COMLEC) had to recall 76,000 compact flash cards from every precinct count optical scan (PCOS) voting machine that was to be used on election day.

The vendor handling the technical part of the election, Smartmatic, then had three days to reconfigure the cards - which read the ballots and store voting data - and redistribute them to the 36,000 polling stations nationwide, a process that had taken the company three months previously.

It was a glitch the doubters had been waiting for. Many called for the elections to be postponed, the manual system put back in place and the 7.2 billion pesos (US$155 million) funds awarded to Smartmatic returned to COMELEC. Others said Smartmatic and COMELEC officials should be arrested for the late deployment of poll machines and the reconfigured flash cards – even if the elections went ahead on 10th May as scheduled.

But in the end, the 2010 general election was, in comparison to previous Filipino elections, fairly uneventful. Technical issues were resolved in time, and the Philippines survived its quickest, most orderly and peaceful (six people died in election-day violence, a low number historically) election ever. What follows is a blow-by-blow account of how the Philippines pulled off what some observers described as “an act of God.”

The tender
In June 2009, the P11.3-billion (US$244 million) contract was awarded to the foreign-local consortium Smartmatic-Total Information Management, which COMELEC chairman Jose Melo said was the clear winner. It was also the last bidder standing after a month-long process that saw six other consortia disqualified because they failed to meet eligibility, technical and financial requirements. Smarmatic- TIM submitted a proposal that was P4 billion (US$86 million) less than the contract price.

TIM, a local IT firm established in 1985, brought with it experience implementing government projects for the likes of the Social Security System, Department of Trade and Industry and the Government Service Insurance System.

Smartmatic, a Netherlands-based e-voting specialist, made its in Venezuela when it computerised the 2004 elections. The company was one of the two companies that supplied COMELEC with voting machines for the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao elections, which saw 1.6 million Filipino Muslims vote in a successful pilot poll in 2008.

Though it worked out in the end, the consortium almost fell apart because of a disagreement over funding that led to TIM’s withdrawal. But COMELEC warned the two companies that unless they resolved their differences and proceeded with automating the poll, they could face 15 years in prison.

“We’re going to where the voters are,” James Jimenez said in an interview with FutureGov at COMELEC’s headquarters two months before the elections.

Jimenez, a former lawyer who ran COMELEC voter education programme, was referring to perhaps the toughest logistical challenge of the automation effort, getting the machines to polling stations across an archipelago of 4000 inhabited islands. “There are only 299 voters in the Spratly Islands, but we still need to get two machines to them,” said Jimenez.

76,300 machines were distributed by every means available including truck, train, donkey and the traditional Filipino sailing vessel, the banker. Sea-bound machines were wrapped with semi-floatable casing to prevent the immediate sinking of the machines. “The casing will give us just enough time to fish the machines out of the water,” said Jimenez.

When the flash cards glitch occured just before election day, helicopters, lent from executives of the San Miguel Corporation, were brought in to aid the speedy delivery of new and reconfigured cards. 75 stations were set up to configure 3000 cards per hour. 50.7 million ballots were printed on 1500 tonnes of ballot paper using 9380 litres of ink.

There were 1600 different ballot ‘faces’ to account for 85,000 candidates for 17,000 national and local positions, and 111 indigenous languages. A 700-seat call centre was set up to provide technical support, which included 48,000 field support technicians. 904 people, working in shifts, were hired to test and configure the machines, which were stored in 23,000 square metres of warehousing.

Two data centres were set up to manage the data, and the major telecommunications firms provided a virtual private network to transmit the results. Digital signatures were used to verify the identity of voters and elections inspectors at polling booths.

Contingency planning
“An election is the only government project that cannot be delayed – even the launching of a space shuttle can be delayed,” James Jimenez told FutureGov two months before the elections very nearly were postponed because of the flash cards recall. “An e-voting machine must be one of the only technologies that is designed to be used on one day only,” Jimenez said. “No technology is flawless. There are bound to be issues in the field.”

More than 6000 spare voting machines were on standby to be used as replacements. There were widespread concerns over ‘brownouts’ (temporary drops in power supply), but each machine was fitted with a battery (82,200 were supplied in total) and 1722 power generators were deployed to ensure a reliable supply of electricity. If all else failed, people were able to vote manually.

Mga bumbatikos (the critics)
Never mind that automation promised to save the government 4 billion pesos (US$86 million), many weeks processing and counting votes, and many accusations of cheating by disgruntled candidates. There were those who clearly wanted the automation process to fail. But there were also some who had valid concerns.

The main one was that automation would not, as billed, eliminate cheating. It would actually make cheating easier, faster and harder to detect. Another criticism was that the failure rate of the machines – said to be between two to 10 per cent - was too high for the elections to be reliably run.

In an interview with FutureGov is September 2009, Dr Pablo Manalastas, an IT consultant for the policy think tank, Centre for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), also complained that the source code for the machines should have been released earlier to allow specialists to see for themselves whether predetermined results could be fed into the machines. Hacking was a concern too. In 2006, the state of Florida in the US, 19,000 Smartmatic Diebold machines were put to use, but many were found to be susceptible to hacking and were unreliable.

Journalists howled that the same would happen in the Philippines too. Others wondered how a completely new voting system would be possible in a country where IT literacy among the electorate and in government is low. Much criticism, however, was either politically or financially motivated, COMELEC Chairman Jose Melo told FutureGov.

“Losing candidates will continue to attack the system to give themselves a basis for protesting the results,” he said. “Election operators who make a living out of rigging elections and election lawyers who make a living out of election protests will also prefer the manual system, while IT firms will criticise the current system so that their own technology will be considered.”

Educating the electorate
A sizeable portion of the election fund went on a voter education programme meant to inform 50 million Filipinos how to vote properly, and to quash unfounded criticisms of the technology. Late 2009, a massive public information initiative using television, radio, outdoor advertising, text alerts and roadshows went live. Voters were instructed not to overvote (vote for too many candidates), fold the ballot and interfere with the barcode.

The campaign was segmented by audience type, and a lot of energy went into reaching opinion leaders in social media, explained James Jimenez, who is a vociferous blogger, Facebooker and Twitterer. “We have been able to track what’s being said on blogs, using RSS feeds that channel back to our own blogs. So even if people aren’t actively participating in the conversations we’re having, we can gauge public acceptance (or otherwise) of automation. We want to counter the perception that automated elections mean automated cheating.”

Despite COMELEC’s efforts, the campaign came in for criticism from some (including in government) who said it was failing to get the message through. A survey in March found that 46 per cent of Filipinos had no idea how the technology worked. “Of course voters don’t know how the technology works,” a frustrated Jimenez told FutureGov. “It’s a very technical issue. I don’t know how my mobile phone works, but I know how to use it. What’s important is that voters know how to vote, and how to vote correctly.”

Jimenez pointed to another survey that showed that 71 per cent of Filipinos thought that automation would deliver a credible result that they would accept without complaint.

On a searing hot summer’s day, 80 per cent of the 50-million strong Filipino electorate headed for the polls (which compares to 75 per cent in the Sri Lankan Presidential election in January 2010 and 60 per cent in South Korea’s in 2007), a far higher number than expected. There were long queues in many provinces. Some people gave up and went home, but most braved the heat for up to five hours to cast their vote. The queues were partly a result of a consolidation of voting precincts from 352,000 to 82,000 precincts. One thousand people had to vote where only 250 to 300 had voted before.

Delays were also caused by malfunctioning PCOS machines, which had to be fanned due to soaring temperatures. 465 machines broke down in various polling precincts and the count had to be done manually. The voting period was extended by one hour to accommodate queuing voters.

In Singapore, where 31,000 Filipinos voters reside, the heat and humidity caused moisture to interfere with some machines when they were brought out to polling booths from their airconditioned storage rooms. Glitches also affected machines in Hong Kong, where 95,000 voters live.

“We have nine machines, seven of which we used, and they worked perfectly well. Those who voted said they are happy with the voter experience, which only took between five and ten minutes,” Neal Imperial, Minister and Consul General of the Embassy of the Philippines in Singapore, told FutureGov. “The Philippines is the first country in Southeast Asia to implement overseas absentee voting, and first to implement automated polls. We’re a pioneer in expanding democracy,” he said.

Votes counted by the machines were transmitted to canvassing servers. Less than 24 hours later, more than 90 per cent of all the results had been transmitted and tallied. “This marks a drastic improvement from all Philippine elections to date where it often took months before the final election results were delivered,” observed a well pleased Smartmatic Southeast Asia President Cesar Flores.

He rated the technology’s performance with a nine out of 10 rating, even with machine-failure reports and transmission problems. The failure rate of the machines turned out to be 0.5 per cent, nowhere near the two-10 per cent figure quoted by CenPEG eight months earlier.

Lessons learned
If they could do the whole process again, what would the elections protagonists do differently? James Jimenez: “The friction between Smartmatic and TIM was unfortunate, and I think the rules on the nature of the relationship between foreign and local firms in bidding consortia need to be rethought. Also, we would be more comfortable with earlier deadlines for the delivery and testing of machines next time round.”

Smartmatic’s Cesar Flores: “We would focus more on logistics, which would reduce the time needed to do the project, which would give more time for testing. For a first run, this election was very successful, but we could do the next one in six months.”

Ray Roxas-Chua, Chairman of the CICT and Chair of the COMELEC Advisory Council for elections automation: “The glitch involving the configuration of memory cards resulted in a mad scramble by the vendor to rectify it and an erosion in the confidence of the public. The final testing and sealing should probably be done more than a week before the elections.”

“10 per cent of precincts did not have transmission coverage and had to resort to contingency measures (ie. transportation of memory cards). COMELEC should work with the telecom operators to ensure all precincts will have coverage in the next election.”

“Some forms of cheating related to identity verification were still prevalent, such as flying voters, deceased voters, and ballot stuffing, which cannot be prevented by the automated election system. Congress should pass a law making biometric registration mandatory, so COMELEC can implement an electronic identity verification system in the next election.”

What the elections mean for government IT
Since the elections were successful, there is the hope that the Senate, which has rebutted a bill to create a Department of Information & Communications Technology (DICT) for a decade, will be alerted to the benefits of technology by passing the bill and elevating the status of the Commission of ICT (CICT).

The CICT is the result of an executive order made by the Arroyo administration in 2004, and was only ever meant to be a transitionary body that would later by ceded the powers of a fully-fledged department. But the bill is still just a bill, and the Philippines remains one of the only countries in Asia without a department of ICT.

"This bill has been ten years in the making, so it’s hard to feel confident,” Roxas-Chua told FutureGov. “I just hope the new administration will push it as hard as the old one, because it’s about time the Philippines wakes up and prioritises ICT. I will no longer be around for the next go around, but the key will be to find supporters in the next Congress.”

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