Untested poll automation raises 'No-El' specter

By David Dizon, abs-cbnNEWS.com

Posted at Jun 19 2009 12:23 AM | Updated as of Jun 19 2009 11:48 PM

MANILA - Potential candidates for the 2010 elections on Thursday voiced wariness to a possible "no election" scenario next year, not just from the House of Representatives-led constituent assembly (Con-Ass) initiative but from the threat of tampering or breakdown of the first computerized general elections in 2010.

According to the Commission on Elections (Comelec), the automation of next year's polls will soon be a reality after it signed a P7.191 billion contract with Dutch-Filipino consortium Smartmatic-Total Information Management Inc. The contract provides for 82,200 Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines, which will be used in next year's general elections.

Comelec Chairman Jose Melo dismissed fears of possible election failure next year due to machine breakdown or technological failure.

"The way I look at it, with 82,000 units, not all 82,000 will fail. The law of probability is at work here. You don’t expect all 82,000 machines to fail, probably less than 100. Now let us say a machine is sabotaged in a barangay because there will be clustering of polling precincts...If one machine fails, the balance there can be counted by the other machine, which is in the same barangay," he said in a Makati forum.

He pointed out that the poll automation contract obligates Smartmatic-TIM to provide backup machines in case of machine breakdown.

He conceded, though, that he expects failure of elections in parts of the country when candidates resort to violence or ballot-snatching.

"[Election] failure will not be because of the machines, it will be because of men...If there is some sort of ballot snatching or armed clash, that is where there will be failure of elections in that particular area. But I don’t think it can happen nationwide. I expect this will not affect the national results," he said.

Melo dismissed fears that the PCOS machines were not road-tested sufficiently, pointing out that last year's elections in the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao already served as the technology's testing stage. He said the automation of the ARMM elections were conducted in less than four months and were fairly successful.

"We got the results in less than 48 hours. For the first time, there were legitimate losers in the ARMM areas. They accepted the results and there were no protests filed, which is what we expect in 2010," he said.

'No sufficient testing'

Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño points out, however, that the ARMM elections are not a sufficient testbed for poll automation. Firstly, he said Comelec violated provisions of the Republic Act 9369 that stated that the proposed poll automation machines should be pilot-tested first in highly urbanized areas and two provinces each in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

"Chairman Melo himself admitted that Comelec did not follow the law about conducting testing in pilot areas first. They didn't use PCOS in the ARMM. We also know that there were a lot of problems encountered in the ARMM elections. Now multiply that on a nationwide scale, medyo nag-aalala kami. We need to see more assurances that this will really work," he said.

Casiño said PCOS will be a largely untested technology before it is used nationwide next year. Ironically, Smartmatic was one of two IT vendors that participated in last year's ARMM polls. Smartmatic provided Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines for the ARMM polls while a separate firm, Avante International, provided the optical mark reader (OMR) machines, which is similar to the PCOS technology.

Avante was disqualified in the bidding for 2010 election project, allowing Smartmatic to win the contract.

Casiño, who is eyeing a possible senatorial bid next year, raised three concerns on poll automation. Firstly, he said voters should be able to verify their vote after casting the ballot.

Under the PCOS system, votes are counted by the machine with the results automatically transmitted for canvassing and consolidated from the municipal to the national level. This does away with the public monitoring and poll watching, which are crucial in preventing cheating.

"Is the automated counting verifiable by the voter himself? Pag pinasok niya iyong balota niya, paano niya malalaman kung paano binasa ng makina? That's important. It should be verifiable," Casino said.

Cavite Rep. Gilbert Remulla, a spokesman for presidential hopeful Sen. Manny Villar, also raised similar concerns about the accuracy of election results using PCOS technology. He said Villar is set to work with the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) to study the PCOS system and how it holds up under scrutiny.

"We don’t know if it would be accurate. Our attitude though is – why worry about it now? If it happens, it happens. But we’re going to make sure that we are protected legally and have people around. This is going to be documented very well by the media anyway," he said.

Casiño, meanwhile, said the Comelec should also allow candidates to register election protests even before the results are released. He said candidates and their supporters should be allowed to question the election results at every level.

Finally, he said the technology vendor, Smartmatic-TIM, should open up the source code to the public "to check for possible backdoors to the software itself."

Con-Ass + Poll automation failure = 'No-el'?

The party-list lawmaker said the automated elections is particularly worrisome for candidates since election failure could be declared nationwide if automation fails. He also dismissed Melo's claim that Comelec could go back to a manual count if the PCOS system collapses.

"Why settle for pockets of failures when you can crash the whole system? If you crash it, you will be forced to go manual. Since [Comelec] didn’t prepare for manual, it raises a lot of complications. With automation, elections are vulnerable to failure. Whether or not it will fail, that is what Comelec should work on," Casiño said.

He said the lack of confidence in the present administration is fuelling speculation that President Arroyo and her supporters may use the failure of poll automation to perpetuate themselves in power.

"With the many unknowns in automation, the no-election scenario is a very legitimate concern especially in today’s political climate. You have an administration that wants to remain in power, that is capable of disrupting the elections just to remain in power. It’s not just a problem with the technology. You also have the political context to watch out for. In this administration, there is a section that doesn’t want [elections] and they can do it," he said.