Comelec ready for 30% manual polls, says official

by Carmela Fonbuena,

Posted at Jan 27 2010 03:57 PM | Updated as of Jan 28 2010 07:25 PM

MANILA, Philippines - As a contingency measure, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) will be ready for 30% manual polls, according to Commissioner Armando Velasco.

"We have a contingency plan of using manual system. It's 30% of the total number of voters. We will be printing manual forms. It will be used in case of failure of elections in particular precincts. It's the same voting procedure but it will be counted manually," Velasco said during Wednesday's hearing of the House oversight committee on the status of the automated elections.

Manual election is Comelec's last resort if the counting machine--the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS)--malfunctions and the Smartmatic technical team fails to immediately repair it or provide an extra machine.

"Thirty percent is just a conservative estimate, where we might need to do manual count. It's only for the comfort of everybody," added Comelec legal department head Ferdinand Rafanan.

"This is a remote scenario. It's just a contingency plan," Velasco added.

Smartmatic's confidence

The Comelec has initiated field testing for reliability of the PCOS machines.

Velasco did not provide a basis for the 30% contingency plans, but it matches the initial percentage of precincts where there is no strong signal from the three telecommunication companies.

In a 99%-completed signal strength survey by Smartmatic, almost 30% of the areas of the clustered precincts have no reliable signal from Smart, Globe, and Sun Cellular.

Smartmatic operations manager Rulienne Pinate said the company had nothing to do with Comelec's decision to prepare for 30% manual polls.

"We are 100 % that we are going to have full automation. We have mechanisms in place to manage whatever problems that we encounter in the field," she said.

Aside from assigning technical experts to voting precincts, Smartmatic will also have 7,000 extra units of PCOS as part of the contingency plan.

Procedure for manual polls

Under the automation system, voting will be manual but counting and transmission will be electronic.

Voters will use a new ballot, where they will shade the oval corresponding to their preferred candidates.

After they cast their votes, they will feed their ballots into the PCOS machine where the votes are automatically counted.

At the end of the day, the results are added and then electronically transmitted first to the municipality, to the province, and then to the national level.

If the PCOS machines fail, the voting procedure will not be disrupted. Only the counting procedure will be affected.

30% too high?

But a number of congressmen said the 30% allowance for manual polls is dangerously high.

Paranaque Rep. Roilo Golez fears that some politicians may take advantage of the manual polls to be able to influence or control the result of the elections.

"I'm bothered by this 30% contingency plan. It allows for a lot of maneuvering. Who is going to decide on the implementation of contingency plan? A lot  of forces can come in. That decision may be done by the Ampatuans in Maguindanao, not you (Comelec). Paano ang kalaban ni Ampatuan? What if in other areas, a warlord says 'Itigil ang PCOS. Manual polls tayo.'?" he said.

"When you say 30%, it means you are prepared for it. There should be a limit to how much contingency we can accept without compromisng the elections. In tight elections, even 5% can already compromise the result. We should have a very low tolerance level," Golez said.

"It's going to be a compromised manual count. I think for this automated polls, we should  have a very low tolerance level and very low contingency level, beyond which it will be construed as a failure of the system," Golez added.

"Thirty percent is very dangerous. In the old system, the handwriting can be recognized. This one, it's very easy to cheat because you just shade," added Nueva Viscaya Rep. Carlos Padilla.

Padilla fears that the 30% allowance for manual polls will pave the way for the return of "dagdag-bawas" (add-subtract) or the padding and shaving of votes, which is the reason why groups had advocated for automation.

Conservative estimate

Rafanan said they prepared for 30% manual counting, but it doesn't mean they expect this big a failure of automated polls.

"We might be doing manual count in 1% of the clustered precincts. It may be less. Comelec chairman Jose Melo ordered the printing of 30% of election returns only for comfort. It's not because we foresee manual counting in 30% of clustered precincts," Rafanan said..

Rafanan said there are several layers of contingency measures.

"In case of failure of the machines, there are several intermediate steps for the continutity of plans before we will resort, in the end, to a manual count," he said.

"The 30% is just very high degree of preparation on our part. How would you feel if we say we are prepared for 1% manual polls? You should feel uncomfortable.That is what we call a very, very conservative estimate," Rafanan added.

Contingency measures

There are two crucial stages in the automation system--electronic counting of votes and the electronic transmission of results.

This is how the Comelec-Smartmatic contingency plan works:

-If the precinct area is not covered by Smart, Globe, or Sun, Smartmatic will use satellite technology to transmit results
-If the satellite technology fails, a read-only flash drive--where the elections results are saved--may be physically transported to the municipal level

-If the PCOS malfunctions, the Board of Election Inspectors may call the Smartmatic's technical expert to repair it
-If the PCOS cannot be repaired, the precinct will be given another PCOS machine.
-If there is no extra PCOS machine, Comelec may use the machine from a neighboring precinct. The PCOS will be reconfigured to recognize the different sets of ballots.
-If all of the above fails, Comelec may decide to do manual polls.