Implications of a court ruling that voting receipts are the VVPAT

H.A. Barrios
March 8, 2016 

A growing clamor for receipts

An item in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on March 1 (“Issuance of vote receipts pushed”, p. 4) reflects the growing demand for vote receipts this coming May polls.  Aside from former senator Dick Gordon, Rodrigo Duterte’s party and a certain Ted Contacto who is running for Congress are also asking the Supreme Court to compel Comelec to issue the receipts.  As per Contacto, “there should be at least receipts so that voters can see if their votes are accurately read by the machine…” The petitioners say that the vote receipts are the Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) required by law and they are asking for compliance.

A dissenting view

In the same news item, election lawyer Romulo Macalintal expresses a dissenting view, saying that “…there was no provision in the law mandating the issuance of vote receipts….. What the law mandates is for the automated election system (AES) to provide a VVPAT. Clearly, it does not speak of a receipt…” Further, he said that the Supreme Court, in its ruling in the Roque vs Comelec case in September 2009, had already “affirmed that the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines met the minimum capabilities standards in the ‘auditability of the election results.’ “

Relevant questions brought out by the dissenting view

1.       Are the voting receipts the VVPAT?  Are they part of the audit trail?
2.       Since the Supreme Court has already ruled that minimum standards for auditability of election results have already been met, then what is the need for the VVPAT?  Is it a superfluous requirement? In practical terms, what is its value?
In this short paper, we shall focus on the first question. The second question, I believe, needs a longer discussion.

What is the audit trail?

An audit is an examination of a financial statement or record to see if it is true to its source. Auditing is a profession made up of CPAs who conduct financial audits. However, the word “audit” is loosely applied also to the examination of other things, for example, “legal audit” or “systems audit”, with their own unique methods.  In the case of the election audit, the idea of auditing the election was introduced by R. A. 9369.  Presumably it implies a process of examination similar to financial audits.

In financial audits, financial statements and reports are audited vs ledgers, ledgers vs journals and journals vs transaction documents.  This is the audit trail.  It is the accounting trail or data processing trail going backwards. Since data processing begins with a transaction document (a document that represents a transaction/act), it follows that one can only audit as far backwards as the transaction document.

The term “transaction document” is commonly used because all financial records derive from transactions. The act of election is not a transaction, but if we are to subject it to audit, then we must have a document that is the equivalent of a transaction document.

To summarize, the terminus of the audit trail is the transaction document. If we are to audit the election, we must first determine what its “transaction document” is, i.e., what document represents the act of election.

What document represents the election act?

This is the focal point of the discussion about receipts as being the VVPAT. Is a voting receipt the document that represents the election act? This is easily answered if we have an authoritative definition of the act of election. Without one, the matter can be argued without end.  One side can say, for instance, that the act is completed upon putting the ballot in the machine, another can say that it is completed only upon counting, and a third can say that it is completed only upon granting the authority of the office to the winner.

Effect of requiring vote receipts

A ruling that vote receipts are required as the VVPAT would preempt further debate and establish by inference that the voting act is deemed completed upon putting the ballot in the machine. By that ruling, the receipt would be considered as the document that represents the act of election. (If this ruling should turn out to be faulty, that will be manifest by the fact that it cannot be implemented well.)

Such a ruling could also trigger debate on the voter verification requirement.  Some quarters may deem the voter verification requirement as defined once the VVPAT is defined, so if voting receipts are provided, then the voter verification requirement is also complied with. Others, however, may disagree and the matter would have to be resolved.

(The voter verification requirement is not an appendix to the VVPAT. In fact, it is the highest order of specification in R. A. 9369.  The VVPAT and most of the other specs are technical specs, i.e., they prescribe techniques that help achieve the purpose of the law, but voter verification is not a technical spec – it is a purpose enunciated by the law that must be achieved whatever technique is used.)

Closing remarks

This paper is confined to pointing out the implications of using voting receipts as the VVPAT.  To be sure, there are serious issues both conceptual and practical in the use of receipts. These are however best taken up separately so as not detract from the point of this article.

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