Concerns are rising that the use of electronic voting machines in the May Philippines election, meant to prevent vote-rigging, could fail due to technical problems and end up threatening rather than reinforcing the credibility of the ballot.
Glitches in the new system could lead to an inaccurate vote count or to manipulation, in a country where election fraud has occurred before and undermined stability.
The incumbent, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was accused of cheating in the 2004 election. She denies this, but has been beset by coup plots and impeachment attempts. In 1986 accusations of fraud led to the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos.
A survey conducted in January by respected pollster Pulse Asia found that 48 percent of Filipinos expect the May 10 national elections to be clean and the results to be credible. Fifty-four percent “expect trouble” if they are not.
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“The feared consequences include, first, public unrest fomented by high expectations that the replacement of the manual system would do away with widespread fraud and, second, such an unrest could give reasons to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to declare a failure of elections, allowing her to hold on to office beyond the expiration of her term in June,” says Philippine Daily Inquirer political analyst Amando Doronila.
Speeding up the vote count
The old system, in which votes were counted by hand, often took weeks to produce definitive results - and opened the door to fraud claims.
“The antiquated manual system has been a breeding ground of election cheating because prolonged delays in announcing official results has offered opportunities for altering results,” says Mr. Doronila.
A law passed in 2007 mandated that the vote-counting must be automated for the presidential, congressional, and local elections scheduled for May 10.
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) has contracted a Venezuelan company, Smartmatic, to set up a computerized system that will count the votes as they are cast.
The new ballot lists the candidates for president and up to 31 other national or local positions. (With the old ballot, the voter had to write down the names of his preferred candidates.) The voter must fill in blank ovals beside the names of his preferences, then feed the ballot into a counting machine, which tallies the votes and encrypts the results.
The machine then uses public cell-phone networks to transmit the tallies to central computers for the final counting. It should take just 48 hours for definitive results to appear, Comelec says.
Smartmatic says that the encryption cannot be broken.
New system tests poorly
But critics, among them politicians, nongovernmental organizations, the media, and voters, worry that the technology will not work properly or can be sabotaged.
Two series of field tests conducted by Comelec in January in representative samples of precincts showed that the machines frequently rejected ballots, usually because ovals were not filled in properly, and sometimes failed to connect to the cell-phone networks.
Voters have expressed ignorance about the new system. The Pulse Asia survey found that 71 percent have little or no knowledge of how it works.
There is worry that many voters will be unable to cope with a ballot form that is more than two feet long. A preelection information campaign is planned to show people how to fill out the forms.
About a third of the country has no cellphone network coverage. Satellite communication is Smartmatic’s solution for these areas. But the field tests showed that this can be difficult. In one case it took three hours to establish an uplink.
Same old threats of sabotage
There is also the usual fear of sabotage. The leading candidate in the presidential election, Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino has spoken darkly of a "plan to affect the outcome of the elections.” He gave no specifics.
Comelec says it is looking into reports that 5,000 cellphone signal jammers have been imported illegally.
The commission has said that in an emergency, it is prepared to revert to the manual system to count up to 30 percent of the vote.
But if there are delays in counting just a fraction of the votes, it could damage the credibility of the election. Many people may assume that lag time is being used to rig the results.
Opinion polls indicate that the presidential election will be a close contest between Mr. Aquino and Senator Manuel “Manny” Villar.
“There is no shortage of opportunities to create a political vacuum or of individuals or groups ready to take advantage of chaos arising from an election failure and to grab power,” says Doronila.