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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Digital Democracy

The merits and perils of computerized polls

By Andrea Hamilton

AFTER HER ANNIHILATION AT the polls, Benazir Bhutto uttered that oh-so familiar gripe of political losers around the region: My opponents rigged the election and fiddled with voter lists. Bhutto produced no proof, but electoral fraud is by no means uncommon. Can computers help keep polls on the up and up?

They were first used in 1964 in the United States to tally votes. By 1992, two-thirds of the U.S. electorate were using computerized systems to chose candidates. Typically, voters either punch holes in or mark ballots that are then read by machine. In some places citizens can enter their votes directly into computers without a physical ballot. Before too long we may well cast votes over the Internet.

It all sounds promising, both to save time and prevent fraud. But computers are not immune to glitches, let alone manipulation. Vote-counting systems can be designed so that only election officials have access, but those officials would not likely be the authors of the system. Sophisticated programmers could hide all manner of tricks and defaults inside a program that would be virtually impossible even for other experts to detect.

As a U.S. election official puts it, "Few citizens have been initiated into the mysteries of source codes, programs and computer operations. All they see is the computer doing something with the votes."

In Asian countries where lengthy delays in finalizing results are compounded by threats or blatant fraud, computers may not be the ultimate answer to ensuring free and fair elections. But they may be a step in the right direction. Certainly there is room for improvement over manually collecting, counting and tabulating millions of hand-marked paper ballots from far-flung precincts in elections that take days or weeks to finalize results -- which are often then contested by losing candidates claiming vote-rigging.

In Malaysia, where ballots are gathered from individual polling stations and then counted at central precincts, the government is considering introducing computerization to speed up the process. The Election Commission said last month it was looking at adopting part of the Australian election system. Australia computerized its voter registration rolls, which are continually updated by its permanent electoral commission.

The Philippines, notorious for painfully slow election results, is another obvious candidate for automation. Computers were first introduced last year in the regional elections for the governor and legislative assembly of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao. The results came in extremely fast by Philippines standards: 90% of them in just two days instead of weeks. Rather than workers manually reading each ballot, computers scanned them at a brisk rate of 100 per minute. But the machines are delicate and sensitive to heat, dust and moisture -- an obvious drawback in Asian tropical climates.

There are discussions under way to introduce computers in the 1998 presidential, senate, congressional and local elections. Plans call for using 2,000 computers, at the rate of one per town or city, but Congress is balking at the considerable cost. Counters Jose Concepcion Jr., chairman of a private poll watchdog: "If Congress wants clean and honest counting, it cannot but approve the budget for computerization." Well, maybe.



With a keen eye on the fast-growing number of Asian Internet users, the American companies responsible for the most popular World Wide Web search engines are setting up shop in the region. Yahoo! and Alta Vista are building local "mirror sites" of their U.S.-based Internet guides and search engines. These will obviate the need to route searches through the U.S., speeding up service. Alta Vista says it will set up a mirror site in Malaysia in partnership with Alam Teknokrat. It will provide the same functions as the original and will be Asianized over time. Yahoo! plans to team up with Singapore's Sembawang Media, which runs one of the city-state's three Internet service providers, Pacific Internet. Yahoo!'s mirror site will highlight Asian Web pages and carry regional advertising.


As part of efforts to ramp up its operations in India, America's troubled Apple Computer plans to open Cyber cafes around the country. Dubbed Apple Cafes, they will showcase the company's latest technologies, in conjunction with other multi-media firms. The first Apple Cafe is planned for the southern city of Bangalore, India's booming technology center. Apple Computer India recently set up a service center in Bangalore and hired more than 40 people to offer support to Apple customers and partners.


Not Felix Cheung Yee Ling. This month the 29-year-old chip designer becomes the first person from Hong Kong or China to take part in San Francisco's renowned "Chip Olympics." Cheung was due to present a paper on his new microchip to top industry researchers at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference. The chip optimizes signal reception for portable satellite and TV receivers.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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