Wednesday, August 1, 2012

From Manual to Automated Voting: How the PCOS is making the transition smoother for Filipinos

C├ęsar Flores, CEO of Smartmatic Asia Pacific, delivers PCOS machines in 2010 (Reuters)

Voters in countries undergoing a shift from manual to electronic voting often feel a deep ambivalence towards it. On the one hand, they are eager to embrace automation, knowing that it is the future of democracy. On the other hand, their long familiarity with the paper ballot has conditioned them to be more demanding in terms of the system’s auditability.

Because of this, many regard the Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines to be too big of a leap. DRE presents voters with a touch-screen which displays the names of the candidates. Voters do not write or shade anything but simply press an onscreen button to select their candidate. Even with a Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) which gives a printed interpretation of the voter’s choice, voters who are used to recording their votes indelibly onto a tangible paper ballot may still feel a little uneasy.

It is for this reason that the OMR or the Optical Mark Reader has found favour among countries in transition. This system involves the voter shading ovals on a paper ballot which he then feeds into an optical scanner. The tangible paper ballot may be used in a manual audit which imbues the whole process with the needed layer of credibility.

This phenomenon has been observed in the Philippines, which in 2010 held its very first automated general elections. While the Filipinos realized the need to go automated to eliminate the decades-old problem of electoral fraud, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) believed that Filipinos were not yet ready to give up the paper ballot. As a compromise, the election body decided to lease from Smartmatic a variety of OMR called the Precinct Count Optical Scanner (PCOS).

In spite of some minor technical details that need to be addressed, the elections were widely regarded as a success with many voters considering it to be most credible polls the country has ever had. The Commission was so impressed with the performance of the PCOS that it has decided purchase the machines, intending to use them for at least ten more years.