Why are many of us scared of computerized elections, or at least have some mistrust of it? When I say trust, I mean a collective trust. Not just a mistrust of technology by certain sectors -- say, tech-fearing Luddites (people who fear technology) -- but by a large segment of the entire populace. We need to remember that trust is a mindset.
When we get into our car, use the ATM or ride an airplane to take us 33,000 feet above sea level, we are putting our trust in a collection of components linked together as a system. These systems are backed up by men and women who know how it works and who safeguard its proper operation.
Although our trust in airplanes, ATMs or cars is rocked occasionally by a spate of accidents, such as the braking issue with Toyota recently, we need to understand that there are several things that compose that trust.
One of those is the technology. The technology for counting ballots is simple. Basically you have a sensor that aligns with the shaded portion of the paper ballot. If the circle is shaded dark enough, the sensor triggers on; if not, it reads nothing. It knows where the starting point is on the upper portion of the ballot, and once the ballot is scanned and fed, it knows exactly if candidate X or Y was shaded. If it detects more than the allowed number of candidates to be voted, it will invalidate the ballot. Algorithms that are written by software developers do the counting, check if there are excess votes, and so on.
Granted that if we read too many Robert Ludlum books, we may end up imagining conspiracy theories. Not that the Philippines is a stranger to conspiracies. Many strange things have happened here. So I can understand where the desire to implement a manual count comes from. It is driven by a valid fear - a fear of our history of doing elections.
Technically, you can erase the program and replace it with a malicious one. You can argue that as well with banks. Someone could insert a malicious program into a bank that collects money illegally. But we give our banks the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because even if there are possibilities for malice, we know that there are people who have sworn to protect us against those malicious marauders. These people are the good guys. We need to understand that we are not simply using a system of computers. We are also tapping a big network of people and companies that have pledged to support it.
When you take a step forward, when you
cross the Rubicon, there is no turning back. There are people who
harken for the days of passbooks, or of horse driven carriages. But
if you ask them if they want to return to those times, more often
than not, they will say no. They already trust the technology.
You can argue that if you cross the street, you can get run over. But you look carefully, and cross the street anyway. You can buy an airplane ticket and never make it to your destination, or drive a car and have an accident. We know that statistically it is possible. But do we stop doing it? Of course not, we cannot live our lives that way. We use the technology, knowing its limitations, the institutions and people behind it, the criminals who want to thwart it, and take our chances.
There are those who want to implement a manual count. Theoretically, they are right. But from a mindset change perspective, we also need to leave the 13 padlocks per ballot box mentality, the month long wait for elections, and turn it into an exercise as boring that simply tells us who won at day's end during the evening news. Something tells me that some people aren't ready to leave the old frame of mind behind. Instead of looking forward while driving, we are always looking at the rear view mirror.
If we mistrust computerized elections, it is more because we haven't done it yet, but like the automobile, the airplane or the ATM, once we have used it a few times, we become comfortable with it and take it for granted.
Asking to understand the innards of how PCOS works, or to examine the source code, or have a manual intervention is understandable given our history. We are quite adept technically. We have modified the American World War II jeeps to become jeepneys, our technical men and women are second to none. We like understanding the details of the technology. Plus, we have a long history of electoral fraud.
But, without discounting that history of fraud, there is sometimes a need to move forward and to cut clean. When ATM's were new, we could not believe that the money "went over the wires" and went into our accounts. Somehow, we wanted a passbook to tell us in written form that our bank had our money. But after using it many times, we have grown accustomed to ATM's simply printing out our balance for us. We did not ask BANCNET or MEGALINK to explain how their system works, except for some basic explanations. We simply put our trust in the system.
The second element of trust is the men and women tasked with making the system work. Many of us know people who work in the automobile, the aircraft/airline, and the banking industry. We trust these people, so that trust rubs off on the system. But how many of us know anyone from Smartmatic or the computer voting industry? We don't know these people very well, and if we do read about them, it is the scalawags that we read about. Majority of the people in the COMELEC and Smartmatic might be very honest, but very few of us really know them. We have not sized them up close and personal. Most of them are probably as honest as they come, with a few bad eggs, just like any organization.
The last one is the institution. We know that Toyota, Ford and Mitsubishi are brands and we trust them. We know Boeing, Airbus and the airlines and we trust them. We know people from BDO, BPI and Metrobank and we trust them. Some of our sons and daughters even end up working for them. They have in short, become trusted brands. Sadly for the hardworking and honest men and women of the COMELEC, they have to bear the brunt of the scalawags in their ranks.
Even the car companies, the aircraft companies and the banks make mistakes sometimes. We know they stumble once in a while but for most of our dealings with them they do a good job. So for 10 years or more they do a good job then maybe a scandal comes along. Fine, they recover and they regain our trust.
The problem with elections is that these only happen once every few years. Our engagement with the "election industry" if we can call it that, is very limited. So if every time we deal with them, we find problems, then we cannot develop the trust that we have placed in automobiles, in airplanes and in ATMs.
Theoretically, if we hold elections everyday and mistakes are sometimes made, then we still develop that trust because we deal with it everyday and most of our experience with it is good. But we only hold elections every few years. Maybe if we use the machines for every conceivable election, big or small, these computerized elections become just another thing we take for granted. But the machines are hidden away, only to be used during the big event, which is already contentious to say the least. So they are surrounded by myth and mystery. Not unlike chalk and blackboard, which everyone knows how to use.
Use these PCOS machines often. Make these things familiar everyday appliances. Then people will start to take automated elections for granted.
Dennis Posadas is the author of Jump Start: A Technopreneurship Fable (Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009) and is the Editor of Cleantech Asia Online. He recently completed a new business fable on climate and clean energy.