MANILA, Philippines - Errors and malfunctions marred the testing of the much vaunted Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines with barely a week left before the start of the country’s first nationwide automated polls.
The numerous reports of malfunctions prompted the Commission on Elections (Comelec) on Tuesday to issue a directive postponing all further testing and sealing of the PCOS machines throughout Luzon (including the National Capital Region), Visayas and Mindanao to May 7.
The Comelec decision to postpone the tests also gives Smartmatic-TIM just 4 days to study the problem and fix the malfunctioning PCOS machines.
During a test in Sampaloc, Manila, residents, poll watchers and members of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) expressed concern when a PCOS machine failed to register a single vote for city mayor.
Ten ballots were entered into a machine during the test and it failed to register the votes.
“Nine of us voted for (Joselito) Atienza and one for (Mayor Alfredo) Lim but the PCOS machine in our polling precinct failed to register a single vote,” Herminia Yabut, Barangay 532 chairman, told ABS-CBN News.
A similar failure also occurred during the test conducted at the Graciano Lopez Jaena High School.
Ten ballots were used for each of the 8 machines in the school. All 8 machines malfunctioned.
A paper problem?
However, the machines functioned properly when the votes for national positions were tallied.
“The PCOS machines read the ballots (for national positions) correctly,” said Maria Belen Fajilan, a teacher of Legarda Elementary School and member of the Board of Election Inspector (BEI). “I think the machine malfunctioned because the sample ballot used was too thin.”
She noted that the real ballots for the May 10 polls were slightly thicker than the sample ballots used in the test.
In Makati, the lawyers of a local candidate running for mayor rushed to the Pembo Elementary School after learning that the PCOS machines there failed to function properly.
They learned the machines’ tally of the sample ballots did not match the results of the manual count.
The test involved all the PCOS machines for the school’s 31 polling precincts.
Jessel Ruybibar, a Smartmatic-TIM PCOS technician offered the same explanation as Fajilan on why the errors occurred.
“I think the paper of the sample ballot is too thin compared to a real ballot,” he said.
Ruybibar’s explanation failed to reassure the people who witnessed the malfunctions.
“It’s really saddening,” said Dr. Eletia Lopez, the election supervisor of Pembo Elementary School. “We all want clean elections but you saw what happened with the PCOS machines.”
Jitters before election day
Because of the reported malfunctions during the tests, many members of the PPRCV are worried that the same glitches could occur on election day.
“Right now, we are worried errors occurred,” said Tonichi Fernandez, head of the PPRCV team at Lopez Jaena School in Sampaloc, Manila.
The PCOS machines were supposed to be sealed and secured after the final tests.
Despite the glitches, teachers and members of the BEI hope that the machines will be ready by election day.
Same error in provinces
The errors were not confined in Metro Manila. The PCOS machines often failed when tallying votes for local officials during tests, but were accurate when the votes for national officials were counted. Similar errors were also noted in Mindoro Oriental and Batangas.
Malfunctioning machines were spotted in Balete, Laurel, Lipa City, Lobo, Malvar, Mataas na Kahoy, Padre Garcia, Rosario, Sto. Tomas, Talisay, Tanauan, Tingloy and San Juan.
Members of the BEI at the Lodlod Elementary School in Lipa City were shocked when the tally of the PCOS machines differed from the BEI’s manual count.
“We counted the votes twice,” BEI member Gina Santoyo said. “But our result still didn’t match the machine’s count.
During one test, a machine repeatedly reported that no votes were cast for local officials, contrary to what the BEI found.
“This is an alarming situation,” PPCRV volunteer Lourdes Marali said. “The machines failed when tested with only 10 ballots. What more on election day?”
Lawyer Gloria Petallo, the Comelec provincial election supervisor for Batangas, told ABS-CBN News that they have informed Smartmatic-TIM of the errors made by the PCOS machines.
“Smartmatic told us the malfunctions were unusual,” Petallo said. “They can’t explain it. We’re still hoping that this can be fixed before election day because we really want successful automated polls.
Smartmatic spokesman Gene Gregorio said the problems most probably occurred because of the quality of paper used for the test ballots.
The paper of the test ballots was of an inferior quality compared to the paper used for the real ballots, he explained.
“We still have time to fine tune the machines,” Gregorio said. “The Comelec and Smartmatic are checking the reports. We have to wait for the Comelec to release its findings.”
“We’re looking into this,” he added. “A team from Comelec-Smartmatic is looking for a root cause. By tomorrow, we will have a diagnosis. The purpose is to test the machine and find a solution. Smartmatic-TIM will answer this.”
The decision of the Comelec to postpone further testing of the machines to May 7 gives Smartmatic-TIM 4 days to study the problem and find a solution.
A group of information technology experts claimed earlier that the source code used in the PCOS machines was sloppily written and could cause counting and transmission errors. -- reports from Zyann Ambrosio and Jeff Canoy, ABS-CBN News