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A brief history of automated elections in the Philippines

Comelec 2022 Election

Voting is vital in the exercise of democracy. At the heart of any democratic society lies the right to vote in free and fair elections. The Philippines, considered one of Asia’s oldest democracies, is no stranger to this process. Modernization of elections, however, came quite recently in the nation’s electoral history.

The following is a quick overview of the Filipino journey towards incorporating technology and managing the risks that may come with election automation.


Although votes were still cast in ballot boxes for the Batasang Pambansa elections, the data were transmitted by voting precincts to the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) via telex, a teleprinter similar to fax machines. From there, technicians would tabulate the data on desktop computers. The National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) was accredited to conduct “Operation Quick Count,” a parallel but unofficial tabulation regarded as an innovation in election technology at the time. For this, some 200,000 volunteers were mobilized.


Alleged discrepancies between the COMELEC’s official count and the parallel quick count done by NAMFREL were highlighted when 35 tabulators walked out from the National Computer Center while the tally was still ongoing. They were hailed by the opposition as “COMELEC 35.” This event supposedly contributed to the EDSA People Power Revolution that came after the Batasang Pambansa proclaimed the election results.

Comelec 1986


The opposition coalition Grand Alliance for Democracy accused both COMELEC and NAMFREL of electoral fraud in the Senate elections, alleging there were disks that can be used to prove the votes received by administration candidates bordered statistical improbability. The administration, meanwhile, hailed the election as the “cleanest and freest” yet. Twenty-three of the 24 available Senate seats were won by the administration, with one of them eventually replaced after the Supreme Court denied a partial recount.


Operation Modex (Modernization and Excellence) was announced by COMELEC, leading to studies with foreign consultants exploring technological reforms to innovate the electoral process. This year’s elections, like those conducted in the past, were also marred with claims of cheating and manipulation, although COMELEC officials believed it was relatively cleaner and more peaceful. Nonetheless, computer and telecom issues were exacerbated by major power blackouts. The protest filed at the Supreme Court, however, did not prosper.


Republic Act No. 8436 mandated COMELEC modernization and its use of an automated system for the 1998 elections. The law’s provisions included the procurement of automated voting machines. Among the features of the desired system were having minimum human intervention, an uninterrupted power supply, the capacity to count up to 150 ballots per minute, and being user friendly to the point that it will not require computer literate operators.


Inadequate preparations and financing were pointed as causes for the failure to hold automated elections nationwide. Only pilot areas, namely Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, managed to operate the system in time for this year’s elections. However, machine defects have been reported. The provinces constituting the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM, now Bangsamoro Autonomous Region) were arguably the first in the Philippines to use machines with optical mark recognition (OMR) in their 1996 election. OMR essentially meant that the machine would count marked paper ballots through optical scanning.


Republic Act No. 9369 amended the 1997 law to implement the use of automated systems in the next election. Accessibility to persons with disability and people lacking in literacy was one of the preferred features of the system. A random manual audit was also institutionalized in one precinct for every randomly chosen congressional district.


ARMM becomes the first region in the Philippines to conduct electronic voting with all of its provinces. Two technologies were tested in the polls, namely Smartmatic-Sahi’s Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) and AVANTE’s OMR. DRE was a paperless system where the voter preferences would be displayed electronically, usually through a screen. Besides technical failures delaying the counting process, there was also the issue that voters may have not been sufficiently educated on the use of the system. The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), a foreign body observing the elections, gave a poor rating for their overall assessment of the democratic exercise.


Full automation of elections were implemented in the Philippines. OMR technology provided by Smartmatic, called precinct count optical scan (PCOS), was used by COMELEC for the purpose. Smartmatic commended the Filipino experience as the first automated elections in Southeast Asia. The parallel quick count, meanwhile, saw conflict erupt between two volunteer groups. That is, between NAMFREL and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV). NAMFREL pursued accreditation from COMELEC, but PPCRV argued that it would be duplication of duties. This split the volunteer base of erstwhile partners in serving as election watchdogs.


A massive breach of COMELEC’s database was allegedly perpetrated by hackers affiliated with “LulzSec Pilipinas,” while another group claiming to be from “Anonymous Philippines” defaced the commission’s website. Cybersecurity company TrendMicro reported that data of some 55 million Filipino voters may have become vulnerable to fraud and other risks. COMELEC would later inform after thorough investigation that the incident did not compromise the entire database and did not affect the results of the national elections. No biometrics information was included in the stolen data. Meanwhile, the National Privacy Commission saw that COMELEC violated the Data Privacy Act (Republic Act No. 10173), indicating that it was the “worst recorded breach” on a government-held database in the world, and recommending the appointment of a data protection officer.


NAMFREL expressed support to implement a hybrid electoral system instead of a fully automated system. The NAMFREL’s model was called Precinct Automated Tallying System (PATAS), which provides for manual counting at the voting precincts and automated canvassing through electronic transmission of results. This came after the so-called “7-hour glitch” in this year’s elections, wherein COMELEC explained that only the transparency server for the parallel quick count was overwhelmed with the data. The central server was working precisely as it should. In the Senate elections, nine of the administration candidates from the coalition Hugpong ng Pagbabago won.


The consolidated Senate bill on the Hybrid Election Act (SB No. 1950) was filed and is pending second reading as of publication time. Besides the reintroduction of manual counting at the precincts, the bill also proposes to move the training of election inspectors from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), as mandated by the 2007 law, to the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).


COMELEC held test runs for creating an internet voting system, which they believe can be implemented as early as 2025. The trial targeted for overseas absentee voters involved three service providers, namely Smartmatic, Voatz, and Indra Sistemas. As of the 2019 elections, more than 1.8 million overseas absentee voters were registered, but only 334,928 have actually cast their ballots on Election Day. Although a record high for a midterm election, overseas voter turnout was less than 20 percent of those registered.

The Philippines has come a long way in modernizing its electoral process. The advancement of technology, however, has to contend with the tide of a past revisited. Periodic issues continued to erupt despite the immense developments being undertaken to find the most suitable approaches and implement the best practices, challenging the very notion of scientific progress as beneficial for humanity’s political operations. Will electronic voting be the future of elections in the country? Or will manual voting find its way back to the mainstream? Perhaps, only time can tell.

Part 2: Election conspiracy and democratic deceit? 7-hour glitch, 60-30-10 voting, and other theories in the Philippines

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Avatar for Arius Lauren Raposas

A public servant with a heart for actively supporting technology and futures thinking, responding accordingly to humanity's needs and goals, increasing participation of people in issues concerning them, upholding rights and freedoms, and striving further to achieve more despite our limited capacities. In everything, to God be all the glory.

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