james-himenezRECENTLY, we have seen an escalation of efforts to discredit the automated election system (AES) that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) used in the 2010 and 2013 elections. What most of the public aren’t told, however, is that the allegations being bandied about had actually been brought up before the Supreme Court and that it ruled, in no uncertain terms, that the fears were unfounded.

Some ask: “How do we know the ballots are counted correctly if we don’t see them being counted at all?” This argument is disingenuous.

Accuracy in counting is determined not by watching ballots being counted, but by checking if the votes received by any candidate, as recorded in the election returns, match the number of votes he or she received, as gleaned from each individual ballot. This is as true with a manual count as it is with an automated one. The only difference between the two, in fact, is in how trustworthy the matching process can be. And that trustworthiness ultimately hinges on how well the ballots can be preserved.

In both manual and automated systems, the ballots left in the box are vulnerable to tampering. Under the manual system, therefore, most election-rigging strategies called for the doctoring of the election returns to show “fixed” results. The ballots are then destroyed. With the ballots gone, the tampered election returns remain the only record of how the people voted.

In the AES, on the other hand—and this is often left unmentioned—the counting machines snap a picture of both sides of the ballot as it is being fed into the machine. The machine actually preserves the appearance of the ballot mere moments after it leaves the voter’s hand. This image is then stored in a powerfully encrypted storage device, thus, preserving a pristine record of the voter’s intent at the moment he or she cast his or her vote.

Should the ballots ever be tampered with, post-election, this clean record can then be referred to, to determine what the voter actually recorded on his or her ballot at the time of election. With this point of comparison, the accuracy of the election returns can then be reliably gauged.

This has been the case with nearly all the recount cases brought before the Comelec under the AES. In the very few instances where a seeming discrepancy was found between the reported election results and a physical review of the ballots, however, the encrypted ballot images were not used at all. Whoever conducted the recount relied solely on an examination of the physical ballots.

Here’s why relying exclusively on a manual recount is bound to show “discrepancies.”

With the AES, overvotes are voided, i.e., if you vote for more candidates than you’re allowed to, such as voting for two candidates for mayor, the votes for that position are not counted at all. So all a person has to do to manufacture an anomaly is to create an overvote by shading in one more oval than is allowed. A variance is then created between the ballot and the machine-generated election returns. The machine saw a vote and counted it; the manual recounter sees an overvote and doesn’t count it.

The reverse is true. The AES adheres to the rule that only shaded ovals will be counted as votes. In a manual recount of ballots originally read by the AES, people have tended to count as votes even those marks—crosses, dots, checkmarks—that the machine would never consider as valid.

So it all boils down to what the machine saw when the ballot was first fed into it. And that’s where the encrypted images become key. At the point the images were snapped, the ballot is considered as being in the most trustworthy state it will ever be, as there has been no opportunity at all for anyone else to modify it without the voter’s knowledge and, presumably, consent. If those images clash with the actual ballots, then you can reliably say that tampering has occurred. And, if the encrypted images tally with the reported result, then the accuracy of the count has been established.

And for two elections now, that’s what we’ve been seeing. So why keep trying to tear this system down?


James Jimenez is the spokesman of the Commission on Elections.


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