Will the Philippines follow the example?
I learned a great deal about electronic elections last week in Cebu from Jonji Villa. Villa is a Filipino expatriate, and has spent his career primarily in Hong Kong and Malaysia. A 10-year resident of Kuala Lumpur, he holds two positions with two different companies. Villa is chief executive of Intelbay, a corporation he founded in Malaysia that specializes in developing software solutions for the insurance industry.
He is also a director for SMARTMATIC, a Boca Raton, Florida company that Villa says is probably the number one provider of electronic election solutions in the world. Officially, the company says it develops embedded and enterprise software that links many kinds of devices from a wide range of networks, allowing them to quickly connect and simultaneously execute millions of tasks.
The networks it is primarily concerned with have to do with automated voting systems, integrated security networks, and personal registration and authentication solutions. SMARTMATIC’s automated voting systems are used in 23 U.S. states, the U.K., and in a number of South American countries. In Venezuela, home to the company’s U.S.-educated founders, the system has been used in five straight elections.
Despite the polarized politics in Venezuela, Villa says that elections are not accompanied by the usual accusations of voter fraud, because “it’s impossible to commit” fraud with the system in place. For one thing, there’s simply no time. Results are instantly communicated, tabulated, and stored in a safe location. “To commit fraud, you have to have time with the ballots. With our system, there are no ballots, and there is no time,” he told me.
Sounds refreshing. As a result, Villa said, even opposition politicians trust the system. They may complain about the results, but there’s just no convincing argument that will persuade an electorate that has grown to trust the system that fraud can take place. Accuracy and dag-dag bawas-prevention safeguards are not the only benefits of the SMARTMATIC system, or similarly highly secure automated voting systems.
One of the advantages is cost savings. When an automated voting system is deployed, for example, the government saves hundreds of millions of pesos in paper, printing, and transportation costs to over 300,000 precincts, in the Philippines’ case. An automated system can be shipped faster and far easier than 45 million ballots and hundreds of thousands of ballot boxes. Because candidates’ names are displayed on a monitor and votes are recorded electronically, no paper and ink are necessary.
Security costs less too, because there is much less to guard, and votes are safeguarded electronically, not by three or more election officials standing over them daring anyone to try to lay their hands on them. These factors serve to lower the human resource costs involved in conducting a nationwide election, aside from increasing the accuracy and timeliness with which results are made available.
Another advantage of automated elections is an improved country image. As you’ll recall, it was awfully embarrassing three years ago when India, with roughly 10 times as many voters, announced results within hours after polls closed. The Philippines, by contrast, took much, much longer. According to Villa, India used a fairly rudimentary system, but even so, generated substantial goodwill around the world for the fairness and transparency with which the election was conducted.
Villa says that positive image translates into increased investor confidence, and a commensurate increase in foreign investment. “Honest elections will bring in more investors – overnight,” he predicted. Not surprisingly, Villa was in the Philippines to promote the SMARTMATIC system. He is attempting to arrange a pilot test later this year when Barangay elections take place.
When asked about the chances of that happening, Villa was upbeat, saying the Philippine situation has improved in recent years, and that poll automation is long overdue. But he also acknowledges that his country also has a long way to go in other ways in terms of global competitiveness. He cites, for example, real openness to foreign investment, including land ownership.
“I have a home,” he said, “in Kuala Lumpur (Villa is, incidentally, still a Philippine citizen). Several years ago it was much more difficult to buy land, but that’s changed now. It’s very easy. As a result, Malaysia is able to attract foreigners from around the world with expertise the country and the economy needs to grow rapidly.” Hopefully, the Philippines will act on the examples Villa says will likewise accelerate growth here.