Law Innovations (Philippines)

Updates in Philippine law, upgrades for the Filipino lawyer

How UP Diliman Implemented Its Own Automated Voting System

Posted by Oli Reyes on February 18, 2010

(Note: Atty. Ferdinand Rafanan, Director of the COMELEC Law Department, has accepted the invitation of Law Innovations to speak on the 2010 automated national elections at its first MCLE Series (36-hours full credit) scheduled for 11, 12, 18 & 19 March 2010. E-mail for more details)

As the Philippines prepares for its first automated national elections in May 2010, we may as well look to the University of the Philippines-Diliman, which has implemented automated voting for all its local student university-wide elections since 2009. While the framework of the U.P. Diliman voting system (dubbed “Halalan”) requires no paper ballots and is thus radically different from that which will be utilized in our own national polls, it may be a source of inspiration and future lessons as our country adjusts to the prospect of an automated electoral future.

With the assistance of U.P. College of Law Secretary Solomon Lumba, I was able to interview the current Project Manager of Halalan, Rystraum Gamonez, a second year Computer Science student at the U.P. College of Engineering. Rystraum explained that Halalan was developed after members of his campus organization, the UP Linux Users Group (UnPLUG), were watching a typically prolonged tabulation of paper ballots for the University Student Council election, wondering whether an automated voting system for the campus was possible. They scoured the Internet for available election software for their purposes, only to find none. To their credit, they decided then to develop one themselves, and the software they developed was used, first in local College of Engineering elections, then by three other colleges in their own local council elections, before it was finally adopted by the entire university for the student council elections of 2009. The efforts of the developers of Halalan have hardly remained anonymous. For developing the Halalan software, UnPLUG won an award during the 2006 Software Freedom Day, a worldwide celebration of Free and Open Source Software initiated by Software Freedom International and co-sponsored then by IBM. The prize — an IBM Power5 server which is currently used as the central server for Halalan. The team of developers who invented Halalan: Waldemar Bautista, Ralph Justin Arce, John Michael Bitanga, Vanessa Rose Castro, Wigi Vei Oliveros, Antonio Mari San Miguel, DJ Sison, Carlo Santos and Orly Tarun.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the Halalan system is its utilization of open source software. The code is freely available online (you can download it here), under a GNU General Public License that generally allows for its use by anyone for commercial or non-commercial purposes. It is free for use by a large homeowner’s association in Paranaque, a university in Buenos Aires, or a local government in Tanzania without fear of trampling on any intellectual property rights or paying any fee to the developers. The code may also be modified for idiosyncratic purposes, though under the license, any derivative of the original code should be licensed under similar terms and conditions as the original.

The system of course could not run on software alone. In order that it could run, it would require a network of computers connected to a web server (such as Apache) and a database server (such as MySQL). Any computer would do – it need not be a dedicated election machine – so lang as it could be connected to the network. In the case of UP Diliman, an array of desktops or laptops (as may be available to the individual colleges) are situated in the voting precincts, each logged on to an IP address on the university-based DILNET server.

Voting in UP Diliman proceeds in the following manner. The student goes to the precinct, and presents to the poll clerk her/his student ID (or Form 5). Once the poll clerk is satisfied that the voter is enrolled and thus eligible to vote, the voter is given a password taken from a list of pre-prepared computer generated passwords. The voter heads to the computer, and is confronted by a browser screen. As required by the browser, the student logs in her/his student number and the previously supplied password. If the log-in is successful, the student is led to the online ballot, which features the contested positions, the names of the candidates and their respective parties. Using a mouse, the voter clicks on the empty boxes beside the names of their candidates of choice, thereby marking the same. (There is also, in the UP system, a box for “Abstain”) Clicking the box does not automatically record the vote, as the voter has the choice to review her/his ballot and changing votes before finally confirming the same. Confirming the ballot and thereby finalizing the votes requires the voter to go to the end of the ballot and undertaking two steps: (1) typing in a Captcha code which ensures that the ballot was accomplished through human selection; and (2) clicking on the “Confirm” button. Once the ballot has been confirmed, the votes are immediately recorded on the central server. After all the voting precincts have closed, the tally of votes is instantaneously generated by the central server, meaning that if the precincts close at 7:30 pm, the final tally is available at one second past 7:30 p.m.

The Halalan system is seemingly simple, and its advantages scream out at you. If implemented without hitches, it allows for fast, virtually instantaneous tabulation of votes. Once the final list of candidates is supplied, it takes only 2-3 days to configure the software and prepare the ballots (in U.P. Diliman, at least). The centralized server means that there is only one repository of the tallied votes – no need for goons to haunt barangay or municipal polling centers. Unlike in a system requiring shaded paper ballots, there is no room for the ambiguity of choice offered by half-shaded ballots. And there is the expense. There is no need to purchase hundreds or thousands of dedicated machines designed for the singular purpose of reading paper ballots. The bulk of the expenses would be devoted to purchasing the personal computers (or laptops) to be used in the precincts (the recommended ratio being 1 computer for every 300 voters), and these computers can be utilized for other purposes after the election.

Yet there are significant hurdles to implementing the Halalan system at this time for our own national elections. For one, it requires our telcos to provide a highly stable computer network infrastructure that ensures that all computers in all precincts nationwide are connected to the central server at all times during voting (from 7a.m. to 3 p.m.) For now, easier assured in Makati than in Maguindanao. In contrast, under the system to be used by the COMELEC, network connectivity would be required only upon the moment that the tally of votes (i.e., election returns) are transmitted to the various local government canvassing centers. There is also the fact that personal computers do crash, often at inopportune moments. Our own anecdotal experiences with the “blue screen of death” may dissuade us from fully trusting our votes with the sort of computers that have left us frustrated at many points in our daily routine.

Another salient difficulty with the Halalan system – it requires that all voters possess a certain degree of computer literacy. It is to be expected that the current student community of UP Diliman is sufficiently knowledgeable about computers, but that is not the case with the wider spectrum of nationwide voters. Many Filipino voters have never encountered a web browser or a computer mouse, and I myself could attest that it is much easier to teach the computer-illiterate how to shade an oval on paper than how to use a mouse. Perhaps the continued reliance for now on the paper ballot, albeit in modified form, remains necessary as a transitional system while overall computer literacy remains inadequate.

Assuming that these hurdles could be overcome in the future, is there a need to amend our laws for automated voting? Republic Act No. 9369, which is the current mandate for the COMELEC to adopt an automated election system, permits the use of either a “paper-based or a direct recording electronic election system as it may deem appropriate and practical for the process of voting, counting of votes and canvassing/consolidation and transmittal of results of electoral exercises”. (See Sec. 6) “Direct recording electronic election system” is defined as “a type or automated election system that uses electronic ballots, records, votes by means of a ballot display provided with mechanical or electro-optical component that can be activated by the voter, processes data by means of a computer programs, record voting data and ballot images, and transmits voting results electronically”, a definition that plainly accommodates the Halalan system. With only a few refinements in the software perhaps, it seems quite feasible for the COMELEC to adopt the Halalan system for future elections, provided that the benchmark of appropriateness and practicality (i.e., a stable nationwide computer network) is also met.

It is worth pointing out that one of the criticisms lodged against the COMELEC-Smartmatic deal is that the contract ceded too much control to Smartmatic, contrary to what was provided under Republic Act No. 9369. This was a major point raised by Justice Carpio in his dissenting opinion in Roque v. COMELEC (G.R. No. 188456, 10 September 2009). The majority opinion penned by Justice Velasco rejected that argument, pointing out among others that while the automation contract with Smartmatic placed the latter “in charge of the technical aspects of the counting and canvassing software and hardware“, the Terms of Reference (an integral part of the automation contract) did mandate that “the entire processes of voting, counting, transmission, consolidation and canvassing of votes shall be conducted by COMELEC’s personnel and officials.” A similar criticism could be raised for now with the Halalan system, with Rystraum noting that since the technical burdens in facilitating the automated system fall upon the UnPLUG group, the local poll clerks of the individual colleges are left with little to do. Still, one of the ultimate goals of the developers of Halalan is to tweak the system to the extent that laypersons could easily implement automated voting with minimal to no assistance from a technical support group. A positive development on this front occurred in 2009, when the U.P. College of Law used the Halalan system for its own local council elections. After the UnPLUG team prepared the ballots using the data supplied them by the College, they supplied the administrative log-in keys to the College of Law, leaving the latter to stage the election on their own. Thereafter, the  College of Law was able to successfully autonomously hold the elections without directing any query or seeking any technical assistance from the developers.

Members and alumni of UnPLUG have volunteered to assist in the implementation of the automated 2010 national elections. According to Rystraum, one vital matter that should be inquired from the COMELEC is what would happen if, while the voting machine is transmitting the tallied votes, the transmission is interrupted midstream for whatever reasons. Would the already-transmitted figures be already tallied even if the transmission were incomplete?  Would there be a possibility that these already-transmitted figures would be tallied twice once transmission resumes? This is the sort of conundrum complained of with the Cebu Pacific website, where customers have complained that they have been assessed twice instead of once for reservations they have purchased online due to the less-than-smooth operation of the airline’s website.

The inherent nature of automation will easily provoke the sort of fears ultimately rooted in technophobia, ripe for exploitation by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Better the evil we know than the evil we don’t know. At the same time, the specialized technical knowledge involved in staging automated elections, confined as it is to a limited set of people, leaves a disempowering feeling that the Filipino electorate is unaccustomed to. As with all things technology, education will bridge gaps and alleviate fears. Still, as this is our right to vote that we are speaking of, vigilance is a step that should not be automated.


One Response to “How UP Diliman Implemented Its Own Automated Voting System”

  1. […] How UP Diliman Implemented Its Own Automated Voting System […]

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