PSA: Automated polls a disaster waiting to happen

by Aries Rufo,

Posted at Dec 28 2009 11:11 PM | Updated as of Dec 29 2009 11:21 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The automated 2010 national elections is a potential disaster waiting to happen, with all the explosive ingredients in it, a political risk consultancy group said.

In a report, the Asia-based Pacific Strategies and Assessment (PSA) expressed concern whether the country could pull off the ambitious nationwide automation, echoing fears of critics that “there are simply too many potential human, procedural and/or technical breakdowns that could lead to a major disruption or most drastically a complete failure of the May 2010 elections.”

The PSA added: “This could result in a constitutional crisis of unprecedented proportions and major political instability that would drastically worsen the overall risk climate of the Philippines.”

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) is now rushing against time to implement the first-ever automated elections, with only around 4 months left before the May polls. From the start, the preparations had hit snags: from the bidding to the awarding of the contract to the delivery of the automated counting machines.

The hitches have been giving Comelec chair Jose Melo some sleepless nights.

The automation of the polls is pressed against the background of a highly anomalous presidential race in 2004 where President Arroyo allegedly cheated her rival Fernando Poe Jr. in the counting and canvassing of the votes.

Technology, process, people

The PSA looked into three areas of the Comelec preparation--technology, process, people--in assessing the outlook for the automation. It identified problematic issues in each of the three areas.

On technology, the PSA noted problems in machine production, delivery, and deployment, raising concerns whether the winning vendor, Smartmatic, is up to the task.

One alarm signal is the fact that Smartmatic suddenly shifted the manufacture of the machines from Taiwan to China, which deviated from the contract it signed with Comelec. The alibi given by Smartmatic was that the manufacturing office of its Taiwanese partner was devastated by a typhoon, which necessitated the transfer to China.

The Comelec, however, did not try to verify the veracity of Smartmatic’s claims. sources say that the Taiwanese partner simply had no capability to produce 82,000 machines within months.

On the machine itself, the automation law mandates that the Comelec conducts systems verification prior to the elections. Yet, “to date, there is no evidence that Comelec or Smartmatic-TIM have subjected the physical components of the voting systems or the production models for independent review,” the PSA said.

The testing of the machines was also conducted in controlled and air-conditioned settings, which do not reflect the actual scenario in local elections. “There has been little, if any, testing carried out in atmospheres that more realistically reflect the tropical and (humid) environment found in the majority of provinces.”

Electronic tampering

What is probably the most explosive problem area in the automated elections is the possibility of the results being tampered with electronically. The PSA identified two vulnerable areas.

The first one is the fact that the software of the machine will be placed in a separate memory card, distinct from the unit itself. “Placing the software on an external memory disk or flash drive complicates the voting systems functionality and opens up opportunities for damage, tampering and alternation,” the PSA pointed out.

The second is that the fact that private and public keys to the machine, which are needed in the transmission of the results, are under the control of Smartmatic.

“The digital signatures (of the Board of Election Inspectors) would be generated and assigned by Smartmatic and or groups authorized by it; not an independent or trusted authority. By possessing the private keys, Smartmatic and its associated parties can make changes to the precinct election results without detection,” the PSA said.

Production, delivery

As for the project planning and management, doubts are being raised whether the contracted number of machines will be produced.

The Comelec has admitted that Smartmatic, with its local partner, Total Information Management, can only deliver 30,000 counting machines this December, out of the 42,000 it is supposed to. Smartmatic explained that the high cost of shipping and traffic during the Christmas season is the chokepoint in the delivery.

But the PSA argued that Smartmatic’s excuse “is highly questionable.” It stressed that “manufacturers traditionally ship holiday goods far in advance of Christmas. Additionally, by all accounts, there is a surplus of freighters and container shops waiting off the anchor points like Shanghai.”

The deployment of the machines to different parts of the country is also a huge logistical nightmare, and apparently, Smartmatic, a Barbados-based company, miscalculated. The PSA said it has gathered reports that the vendor is having problems finding subcontractors to deliver the machines nationwide.

Manpower problems

As for manpower concerns, the PSA expressed doubt whether Smartmatic, or Comelec for that matter, could hire enough technology specialists to help operate the 82,200 machines.

Also being downplayed is the fact that public school teachers who will administer the elections have yet to undergo education and training in the operation of the machines. Comelec said the training will begin by January, but critics say the timetable is overly optimistic since no machines have arrived.

The first batch of around 3,000 machines will only arrive Dec. 30.

Perhaps, the incontrovertible evidence that the automation will likely be bungled is the government’s sorry track record in implementing technology projects, PSA said.

It identified 11 technology projects, such as the Comelec’s botched automated elections in 2004, and the land titling computerization, which are all considered failures.

Overall, the PSA said, a massive failure of elections is not a remote possibility, and this could push the country to a constitutional crisis. “The wild card in all this is how sitting President Arroyo will react to elections failure,” the PSA said.

Government critics have warned that Arroyo could exploit chaotic elections to perpetuate herself in power. Although she has promised to step down as President when her term ends in June 30, 2010, many doubt whether they have seen the last of her.