Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Philippines automated elections: a model of transparency

On May 10 of 2010, more than 50 million Filipinos turned up to vote on one of the smoothest and trouble-free elections the country had ever experienced. Most importantly, it was the first nation-wide automated election conducted in the Philippines, an event where technology and democracy were put to test.  These were the first national e-voting experience of the Philippines, and were widely seen as an electoral model of transparency in the region. Over 50 million voters across the 7,107 islands comprising the archipelago used more than 82,000 machines to cast their votes, which were counted one hour after the ballots closed. The results were known in 12 hours, something that the Philippines had never experienced. For the country, this significant change meant the achievement of an important milestone in the nation’s democratic history. Even though laws mandating the automation of elections in the country have existed since 1997, it was until 2010 -more than a decade later-, that the obsolete manual system was replaced by a newer, faster, much more efficient and transparent system supplied by the multinational company Smartmatic, that aimed at giving the citizens fast and credible results. Prior to the elections, the Filipino government and the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), as well as Smartmatic, the company that supplied the technology (voting machines) were targets of strong critics and opposition. Many professionals and citizens opposed the government’s efforts to automate the process, alleging concerns about security, hacking and election fraud. However, the debate focused on the flaws of the e-system, but not much attention was paid on the problems and flaws of the manual system: fake ballots, the misreading of ballots, the snatching, the violations to ballot boxes, and the long and tedious process of counting the votes and the transmission of the results. However, the results were more than satisfactory for the country. International bodies and nations around the globe watched the automation process closely. Important figures such as President Barack Obama said that “the May 10 Philippines elections were a model of transparency and positive testament to the strength and vitality of democracy in the Philippines”; others, such as Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Ex-President of the Philippines, said that “The new electronic voting was a great leap forward for ensuring a smooth and protected vote. It was a fulfillment of the automation that we pushed for from the start.” On May 10th, the Filipino people elected the successor of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the new vice-president, as well as people for more than 17,000 other positions. The logistical nightmares that took place on the elections of the past were surpassed, and the country showed wrong all of those who strongly opposed to the introduction of this democratic technology. The elections of 2010 were evidence of the effort of the local government to stamp out the vote-rigging that had caused chaos in the past. Philippines were a model of technology adoption for democratic processes in South East Asia and it was, without a doubt, a class act example of the benefits of technology in democratic processes. In what’s left of this 2010 and from now on, more nations will study the adoption of e-voting systems to make an important change in their electoral processes: Ecuador, Bolivia, Zambia and Kenya, among many others. Unfortunately for those of us who believe in technology, many democracies remain relentless towards the adoption of new technologies such as electronic voting. Hopefuly this reality, and more importantly, this mentality, will soon change, transforming for good the electoral processes around the globe. As stated by Cesar Flores, Smartmatic’s president for Asia-Pacific, “electronic voting will be the norm in 20 years from now, and only a few countries will remain counting votes manually. It is not a question of 'if', but 'when'”.