Are we ready for 2nd automated polls?
Bobby M. Tuazon Philippine Daily Inquirer
11:43 PM | Friday, February 1st, 2013

The second national automated elections will be held on May 13, or barely four months away. Dominant political parties are keyed up with their campaign gimmicks and demolition jobs while the Commission on Elections is racing against time in the poll preparations.

Surprisingly, only a few stakeholders are asking: Are we ready for the next automated polls? Is the Comelec just going through the motions of gearing for the elections that will likely use a pirated technology?

Citizens’ poll watchdogs and major IT groups warn that the Comelec will end up with a pirated technology if it uses Smartmatic’s precinct count optical scan (PCOS) voting system. The reason: On May 23, 2012, the United-States-based Dominion Voting Systems (DVS), the real owner of the election technology, terminated a 2009 licensing agreement with Smartmatic. Thus, the Venezuelan company’s access to the program systems ceased, making it unable to correct the program errors that it finally admitted early last year. Smartmatic’s suit against Dominion in the Delaware chancery court for breach of contract remains unsettled.

The suit has opened a Pandora’s box: technology ownership misrepresentation, critical programming errors, and a marketing turf war between the two companies.

Late last December, the Comelec revised the election calendar because no source code (or program system) has been submitted for certification. Early last month, the poll body indicated that it would use instead the program that was designed for the aborted 2011 elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Aside from technology legitimacy, another issue is counting accuracy. Smartmatic’s “mock election” at the House of Representatives on July 24-25, 2012, revealed a 2.6-percent discrepancy or 97.7-percent accuracy rating as against the required 99.995 percent, and a high rejection rate of ballots at 4 percent (or 557 errors in 20,000 ballot marks). The low accuracy rating will make it difficult to determine the real winners in the May 2013 elections.

These issues are some of the longstanding questions on poll automation that have been raised by election watchdogs and major IT groups since 2009. Ignored by the Comelec until now are the legally mandated minimum system requirements for credible, secure, and reliable automated elections. These include source code review, digital signature, and verifiability feature. Persistent noncompliance with the provisions of the Election Modernization Law (Republic Act No. 9369 and the related E-Commerce Act) will impair the trustworthiness of the system and give rise to flaws seen in 2010: mismatch in date and time, bloated number of election voters (e.g., 250 million at the PICC canvassing center), missing election data in many precincts, election returns transmitted from unexpected sources, and so on.

RA 9369 states that the modern election technology must conform to “actual conditions in the Philippines.” Why did poll automation go full blast in 2010 and again this year when many parts of the country have unreliable power, telecommunication, and road connectivity? In 2010, many PCOS machines were delivered by carabao and motorbike on rough, dangerous terrain. Voting machines were submerged in rivers and later recklessly dismantled to be dried.

Education for millions of voters demonstrated only the machine’s external wares and the basic steps of ballot casting. The demos left many voters unaware of how it really works, much less informed of the disabling of its critical features, particularly the verifiability screen which confirms whether the votes cast are faithfully scanned by it.

No modern election technology exists that is fraud- or error-free. This much is admitted by IT organizations worldwide. Even a perfect election technology will not address fraud, particularly the traditional and systemic vote-buying. This should stop any illusion that poll automation or the proverbial “trust the machine” dictum will ensure clean elections for as long as their outcome is decided generally by fraud, patronage politics, use of public funds, and the like.

Moreover, the Philippines cannot afford to make election automation highly dependent on foreign outsourcing, or treated as a mere business. Outsourcing has only turned poll automation into a marketing war, and the technical management of the elections by a foreign company has raised sovereignty issues. It also restricts Filipino ITs from participating in the design of poll automation, thereby undermining the constitutional provision for the promotion of Filipino science and technology. Last year, then Commissioner Gus Lagman—the only IT person in the lawyer-dominated Comelec—designed a canvassing and consolidation (CCS) system for 2013. It came at a cost of P600,000, compared with Smartmatic’s 2010 CCS at P58 million. But the Comelec cannot use the model for the flimsy reason that it has not been pretested.

Early last month, the Comelec awarded Smartmatic (a nonbidder) contracts to supply compact flash (CF) cards for the PCOS machines and modems, and the electronic transmission of election results—all amounting to P685.3 million. This is on top of the “option to purchase” contract worth P1.8 billion. Why the awards were given despite Smartmatic’s CF card fiasco on May 3, 2010, and several incidents of technical glitches begs explanation from the Comelec.

Lawyer and whistle-blower Melchor Magdamo recently asked the Commission on Audit and the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate 10 cases of unconscionable expenditures involving Comelec bidding and contracts in the 2010 and 2013 elections. There were also allegations of more than P50 million worth of contracts awarded without public bidding.

Disappointingly, Congress has failed to exercise its oversight function on automated elections, with the joint congressional oversight committee meeting for the first time only last November, or more than two years after the last elections. Without the legislative check and balance, the Comelec has made ill-advised decisions against the recommendations of the Comelec Advisory Council as well as proposals from citizen watchdogs, IT groups, and local and foreign monitoring missions to plug the loopholes and ensure a secure, credible, and accurate system.

All these demand greater vigilance by poll watchers, voters, and teachers serving as boards of election inspectors. Their heroic watch in 2010 aborted no-election scenarios that nearly resulted from the mishaps that occurred days before the polls. With all the unrectified programming errors and other system vulnerabilities, a tighter citizen watch is critical to minimize widespread electronic fraud in May.

Bobby M. Tuazon is director for policy studies of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance and chair of the Political Science Program of UP Manila.


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