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Edwin Tuyay for Asiaweek
If everything goes as the Commission on Elections has planned, by 2004 all 30 million-plus qualified voters will have bar-coded IDs with their biometrics

The Biometric Elections
To stop poll fraud, the Philippines aims to build a national database of voter photos, thumbprints and signatures

Countries like the U.S. fret about low poll turnouts. For Manila's Commission on Elections, the problem is how to stop hordes of people eager, in Al Capone's words, to vote early and to vote often. The Comelec sees such "flying" voters as the biggest threat to clean polls.

The cumbersome voter registration is prey to ruses and tricks that let people sign up and cast ballots under several names, including those of the dead. But if things go as the Comelec plans, a new computerized voter ID system would be so foolproof, it could enable the million-odd Filipinos abroad to vote.

Comelec commissioner Luzviminda Tancangco says the current voters list is so padded that the 35 million people registered are probably 5 million too many. That means more than one in every seven names are bogus. Plus: election precinct boundaries are vague, allowing cheats to juggle voters lists and even create "ghost" precincts.

The Comelec has been trying to modernize since 1992, but progress is slow and piecemeal. "Excess voters are easy to add and hard to remove because there's no systematic certification," Tancangco says. "Every time there's a general registration, 30% of voters vanish." Then the numbers shoot up at "special registrations."

To clean up the list, a multibillion-peso program will use computer technology to track down and identify nearly every Filipino voter by 2004. The Voters Registration and Identification System (VRIS) project will also digitally map each of the country's 226,690 precincts, validate the exact number of qualified voters in each one, "capture" their biometric data (signature, photo and both thumbprints) and embed these in bar-coded tamperproof identification cards.

All data will be stored in a central computer and regularly updated and matched to check for any anomalies. On election day itself, terminals at Comelec offices throughout the country would be able to access the database in order to verify voter identities. "We considered retinal scans, but the cost was huge," Tancangco says. "Fingerprints are the most reliable and cheapest to take."

VRIS mixes high tech with a lot of grunt work. To prevent wrong data from being encoded, special teams are to survey all households in each precinct, identifying potential voters. On a given day, those qualified will go to "capture stations." There, photos will be taken and the thumbprints of both hands scanned -- in the presence of survey team members. The data will be stored on CDs and transferred to the Comelec's central computer.

Tancangco says the commission has invited bids and plans to start testing systems late this year. It wants a package including hardware, software and applications for a network of terminals at its offices in each province, city and municipality, costing $100 million or more. Based on the schedule laid down, the system will be able to account for a million voters next year, when the Philippines holds its congressional elections.

Telibert Laoc is executive director of the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), the top citizens' pollwatch group. He thinks the money would be better spent improving the counting procedures, which he says aren't much different from those in the 1800s: "The tedious counting process has to be addressed first." The $37 million budgeted for IDs, Laoc argues, is "enough money to automate elections properly."

But for Tancangco it's pointless to improve counting when the voters list is polluted. "Garbage in, garbage out" is her favorite retort to Namfrel. She concedes there are bottlenecks in counting. Currently votes are tabulated at the precinct, and the tallies brought to the municipal, city and provincial centers for "canvassing," which sometimes can take months. In one of the biggest election frauds, provincial tallies were altered enough to influence the 1995 nationwide senatorial results. And in 1986, Comelec computer operators walked out to protest discrepancies between results they keyed in and those appearing on a public tally board.

Next year the Comelec will use a communications network to transmit precinct results for national positions to its headquarters in Manila, speeding up the canvass. The tallies, she explains, "could be encoded, scanned, or transmitted by voice or videoconferencing." The method of transmission isn't the only thing to sort out. "We're supposed to have computers in each of the country's 1,600 municipalities," says Tancangco. "Some have electricity only between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m." So the Comelec may also need laptop PCs with rechargeable batteries and wireless links.

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