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Indonesia rushed out a vote-counting app for this year's election. It did not go well

Rest of World - May 28, 2024

Michelle Anindya, Denpasar – Hours after the polls closed in Indonesia's massive election this year, several polling staff took to social media to complain that a new app they were using for counting and tabulating votes was malfunctioning. The app was reading numbers on the result sheets wrong, the officials said, posting screenshots of several glaring errors.

Voting in Indonesia is manual, and vote counts in the world's biggest single-day election are a long and tedious process. Results are tabulated at six different levels, including the polling station, and at the district, provincial, and national levels. There is a gap of several weeks between voting and the official results, and the potential for fraud is huge.

For the February 14 poll, the Indonesian election commission introduced an app called Sirekap, an abbreviation of electronic recapitulation system in Bahasa Indonesia. The app for Android devices allows officials to take pictures of the result sheet, called C1 form. The app uses optical character recognition (OCR), a text-and-image recognition technology, to read the forms and collate data that is then posted online.

On election day, polling station staff noticed right away that the app was reading numbers wrong.

"It was very frustrating that the app got it wrong," an official, who asked to go by the name Andy because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told Rest of World. "So the election commission's website had the wrong vote counts." he said. But the staff had not been trained properly on Sirekap, and did not know what to do.

"At the time of our training, the mobile app wasn't ready to use, so we just went through Sirekap's training document, with no simulation," Andy said.

With more than 20,000 seats in play, including that of the president and vice president, elections in Indonesia are fraught. The long wait for an official result has often triggered charges of rigging, and sparked violence. This year, about 204 million Indonesians went to the polls, with the election commission's promise that Sirekap would make the vote count smoother and more transparent. But that is not what happened.

A viral post on X showed presidential frontrunner Prabowo Subianto with nearly 900 more votes in a polling site in West Java in the official count, when he had only won 62 votes. In a South Jakarta polling station, all three presidential candidates had the wrong counts. Volunteer election-monitoring group Kawal Pemilu documented some 7,681 discrepancies on the election commission's website that did not match the numbers recorded at polling stations.

"Many of the mistakes were only corrected after they went viral on social media," Ted Hilbert, who heads Yayasan Advokasi Hak Konstitusional Indonesia (YAKIN), a constitutional rights advocacy, told Rest of World. "Many of the mistakes occurred because the app doesn't have basic safeguards, such as automatically rejecting votes that exceed the number of registered voters, or allowing manual corrections in case of mistakes."

On the Google Play store, Sirekap has a rating of 1.8 out of 5 from over 36,000 reviews. YAKIN has filed several freedom of information lawsuits for the source code of Sirekap and an audit of the app.

The election commission said there were "technical problems" with the app that led to misinterpretation of the data. This impacted 1,223 of the polling stations that received ballots for the presidential election, and more than 1,500 polling stations where votes for the legislative election were cast, it said. The election commission stopped updating preliminary results on Sirekap on March 6, when less than 80% of data from the nation's more than 800,000 polling stations had been uploaded.

These discrepancies would not have changed the result: Prabowo and running mate Gibran Rakabuming – the son of outgoing President Joko Widodo – won by a landslide. Still, they have raised concerns around Sirekap and the integrity of the election commission. Sirekap was a central issue in lawsuits filed by the two losing presidential candidates. On April 22, the Constitutional Court rejected the lawsuits, saying there was no evidence of fraud, but that Sirekap needs to be improved and audited by an independent body before it is used again.

"The ruling of the Constitutional Court will be our reference in evaluating and improving Sirekap," election commission member Idham Holik told reporters, without giving details.

Most election bodies worldwide use some sort of technology – from basic automation tools such as word processing and spreadsheets to more sophisticated tools including geographic information systems, optical scanning, and e-voting. OCR is used for counting and tabulating paper and mail-in ballots in countries including the U.S., Norway, and the Philippines.

In Indonesia, the solution is better training of staff and testing of the technology, Adhy Aman, senior program manager for Asia-Pacific at International Idea, an advocacy group, told Rest of World.

"Poorly tested technologies and poorly trained staff more commonly cause election technologies to fail than low accuracy of the technology itself," he said. "OCR has high accuracy rates, usually far above 95%, depending on application and processes."

Sirekap was trained on handwriting samples "gathered independently," Yudistira Dwi Wardhana Asnar, a developer at the Bandung Institute of Technology, told Rest of World. They also used the MNIST database of handwritten digits that is used widely to train image processing systems. But the "vast number of polling stations and the amount of forms to be uploaded" was challenging, he said.

The use of mobile phones instead of scanners also hindered the OCR because the "image quality relies on the phone's processing power," Ainun Najib, co-founder of volunteer group Kawal Pemilu, told Rest of World. "So with phones with lower processing power – which are the majority in Indonesia – there are chances it will fail to compute accurately."

Kawal Pemilu, meaning "guarding the election" in Bahasa Indonesia, is one of several community groups that monitors the vote count every five years. It uses crowdsourced data to monitor counts from polling stations, and has used OCR since 2014 to digitize the scanned C1 forms.

Indonesia's election committee has said it plans to use Sirekap in the regional elections later this year. With the easy availability of AI tools, election authorities the world over have increasingly used them for a wide variety of reasons – from voter verification with biometrics to chatbots for voter information, according to International Idea.

"Technology is necessary to speed up processes and for transmitting data faster than any human can. In Indonesia, the sheer number of polling stations indicates the need for technology," said Aman. "Human interventions are still necessary at various stages of the process, such as in verifying the scan results by polling officials, and in resolving any errors."

Despite the setbacks this year – which Kawal Pemilu called the "worst election" – Ainun believes in the power of technology. "The issue is not OCR," he said. "With a bit of fixing, Sirekap could be perfect."Michelle Anindya is a freelance journalist based in Bali, Indonesia. She covers consumer technology, business, and politics.

Source: https://restofworld.org/2024/indonesia-vote-counting-app