Learning from Election Automation

Oct. 25, 2010, 1:45 p.m.

The May 2010 elections marked a massive step forward in Philippine political progress. First results indicating who was elected president were available before midnight on Election Day. Other candidates signified acceptance of the result by conceding that same night; a first in Philippine politics where there are usually only winners and those who “were cheated.” Voters indicated their approval by returning to work as if nothing happened the next morning - a stark contrast to the historic protracted wait, upheavals, and destabilization. This marks astonishing political progress, a previously unknown mainstreaming and “normalization” of the election process.

The success of the automated system was especially remarkable considering the electoral environment it was introduced to. The standard mantra of election automation guides and prescriptions is that automation should only be attempted in a functioning, stable, and credible election system. The upheavals that have long accompanied elections in the Philippines indicate that its system was neither. The Philippines, however, turned the logic for automation upside down. The country’s Commission on Elections (COMELEC) decided to implant an automated system specifically with the intention of increasing speed and accuracy of the electoral process. By decreasing human intervention, went the logic, we are decreasing opportunities for fraud. Automation’s primary purpose was thus not efficiency and convenience, as is the case in established democracies, but improving credibility of the electoral process. It appears to date that this gamble has paid off. Detailed studies are ongoing to determine the root causes of the May 2010 achievement and processes needed to replicate it in future electoral exercises. Theses should prove useful in guiding detailed future election preparations, both in the Philippines and other developing countries attempting automation.

In the meantime, however, the major questions that accompany automation are already evident. In addition to project management, legislative and technical preparations, countries contemplating automation should go through a detailed and inclusive deliberative process to outline the scope of the automation system they aspire to.

Electoral Management Bodies (EMB)s could be forgiven for understating the impact of automation on their organizations. After all, most have introduced information technology into their operations at various levels. This would be a grave mistake, however. Election automation fundamentally alters the way election management bodies do business. Voter registration, election adjudication and everything in between will never be the same. Voter and candidate behavior will adjust to the system, and make established procedures obsolete or even harmful. Staff qualifications, adequate for decades, will suddenly be found wanting. Minor internal disagreements can seriously delay projects on strict deadlines. Previously unimaginable sums of money will be introduced into the electoral process, increasing opportunities for corruption.These changes will require the election management body to not just slightly adjust existing procedures, but radically reform itself if it wants to reap the full benefits of automation while not risk being undermined by it. Once the principal decision to accept these challenges and to move toward automation has been made, the frenzy of detailed project preparations begins. Senior decision-makers should pause for a short moment at this stage, however, and create a mental image of the system they seek to create. This requires making many decisions that are unique to a country’s history and political systems.

At least three major dichotomies, however, are common to all countries contemplating election automation. While the choices may appear obvious at first, gaining an understanding for their implications will allow election management bodies to contemplate their implications.

1) Field vs. Center Dynamics
An election management body’s center (and top) is more connected to information flows than the field. This is natural and common for any large administration. It means, however, that local initiatives are frequently out of synch with national objectives. When elections are run according to long-established patterns, this does not pose a particular challenge. Automation, however, severely shortens timelines and increases the number of preparation activities required. Local officials might have less work on election day when the count or even voting is automated, but, in the months leading up to election day, they have to deal with connectivity, numerous parallel and overlapping shipments, and provision of electricity security for the machines, quite aside from a new approach to voter education and public information. It is thus crucial that the central office’s vision for election automation be operationalized by translating it into a concrete scope of work, tasks and associated timelines for regional and local officials. This requires devising an ongoing training system that is in touch with the latest technological and systemic updates. Moreover, the training program needs to develop the project management skills that now part of the job of local election manager.

2) Efficiency vs. Security
EMBs will be required to make myriad choices on features of the automated system. Almost all technical options involve a tradeoff of improving either system efficiency or security. Most EMB’s will lean a certain way, based on historical trends and political preferences. Excessively veering in the direction of efficiency can compromise the security and the ability to audit the system, undermining integrity. On the other hand, a continuous security preference will make the system slow and hard to use, decreasing user orientation and efficiency. A balance between these options is the best long-term strategy. This requires being aware of where on the scale a certain choice falls and balancing it out in subsequent decisions.

3) Automated Election System (AES) vs. other aspects
For most EMBs, automation is an IT project of unparalleled proportions. It is accompanied by time shortage, political pressure, budget shortfalls, public criticism, and technical complications. Precisely because the manpower and skills required to tackle these challenges are frequently under-estimated at the preparation stage, EMBs start throwing all resources at their resolution. This massive demand on the EMB’s attention can suck the air out of all other, non-automation efforts, despite the fact that these remain vital to the success of the elections. Voter registration, public education, precinct management, campaign finance, and election adjudication are just a few of those examples. Paying sufficient attention to non-technical aspects of an automated election requires assigning resources and staff and resisting the temptation of drawing them into automation trouble-shooting when things get tough. Giving in to this temptation, however, can undermine expensive and complicated technological solutions by stumbling over basic and long-mastered logistical bumps.

Automation’s continuous progress is inevitable in the modern world, and new technologies are quickly outdated. Coupling election administration with technology requires a similarly frequent overhaul that will confront EMBs with an inevitable fact: reform is an ongoing process. Before governments start on this path, they should take a moment to reflect on the above principles, identify their policy priorities, and identify the goals they are striving to achieve. No checklists, manuals, or consultants are going to completely prepare an EMB for automation and the tough choices that come along with embarking on this journey. However, having a clear vision and understanding the implications of those choices greatly improve the chances of staying on course.

Juhani Grossmann serves as Deputy Chief of Party for IFES in the Philippines, where he oversees programs focused on campaign finance, assistance to vulnerable populations and the assessment of the 2010 automated elections.  Grossmann holds an Executive Masters in Public Management from Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, as well as a BA in Political Science and MA in Conflict Resolution from Landegg International University in Switzerland. He teaches Development Communications and Project Management at Ateneo de Manila University.

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