Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Halalang Marangal

MANILA--Running within a hair's breadth of the campaign season, the COMELEC decreed with finality that, as in previous years, there would be no computerized elections this year. And with that decision goes up in smoke the hope for speedy and -- we hope -- accurate resolutions to hotly contested positions. Well, there's always 2010.

Even as the COMELEC must resort to manual methods for tallying votes, there's no reason that citizen-run poll watching bodies can't adopt decidedly more modern means to guard the ballot. And that's the tack that Robert "Obet" Verzola is taking.

Verzola, already prominent within the free and open source software community and civil rights circles, came briefly into the national limelight at the height of the Garci scandal. In an interview with ANC, he pointed out the statistical anomalies in the regions where cheating -- ahem! make that alleged cheating -- took place. No simple innuendo on his part, Verzola backed up his claims with data from both the COMELEC and NAMFREL, indicating where large discrepancies took place.

Alas, all that drudge work came to naught. What chicanery took place in the halls of Congress we already know all too well. The heat of the moment forgotten, we've buried it in the final resting place of so many other inconvenient truths.

But not so Verzola. Verzola has formed Halalang Marangal, a group whose aim is not only honest elections but also truthful statistics. HALAL, as it is called, focuses on the auditing aspect of this political exercise. HALAL volunteers will transmit precinct reports to a central database using SMS, MMS photos, email, courier, etc. as the tallies come to a close. These tallies will be made public via SMS, web sites, and CDs. The purpose is to give anyone the capability to perform an independent audit.

One component of this operation is the NoCHEATS SMS system. Poll watch volunteers register their cellphone numbers with the system. One cellphone can only be associated with one precinct. On election day, volunteers will transmit via SMS results from publicly posted copies of the Election Returns or Certificate of Votes. Alternatively, they can also use email or the web to upload results.

What if a volunteer makes a mistake in his transmission? Or what if saboteurs are in the ranks sending false information? These are indeed possibilities, but NoCHEATS makes use of corroborating evidence to determine the most reliable results. Election results from a single precinct which match are deemed the most credible. With several volunteers operating in a single precinct, it becomes easier to weed out errors and false information.

If the Garci election scandal of 2004 has taught us anything, it's that election cheats no longer need rely on individual vote buying. They've gone one step up in the electoral chain, manipulating the election returns to yield maximum effect. This often takes place in that cumbersome physical transmission between precinct to polling center.

The deception can be so deft as to be undetectable; but only in the rarest of cases. Many times, the method is so crude as to result in discrepancies: for example, when the number of votes exceeds the number of voters, or when the poll watch tallies exceed the COMELEC count. Hence the need for a auditable results. It's HALAL's aim to catch these discrepancies early and publicly so as to bring attention to them immediately.

To find out more about HALAL and NoCHEATS, visit http://halal.interdoc.org or email Obet Verzola at rverzola-at-gn-dot-apc-dot-org.

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