SINGAPORE - Straight from a busy day at work, Filipino professionals in Singapore headed to the Philippine embassy on Monday evening for an important gathering. As leaders of various Filipino organizations in Singapore, they were the first among overseas voters here to try the automated election system.
It's their first time to see the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machine, and for some of them, the excitement was just too much to contain. They gathered around a small table where a Commission on Elections (Comelec) representative showed how the machine works, casting sample ballots and taking pictures.
Each time the machine accepted ballots, they gave a round of applause.
"I tried it, I saw the ballot, I tried to put it in," said Edgar Cutiongco, a geologist for an oil company who has been an overseas absentee voter since 2004. "It's quite interesting."
They were also amazed at the size of the new ballot. "It's so big!" murmured some of them as the speaker showed the 25-inch paper.
Those who attended the seminar are among more than 30,000 registered absentee voters in Singapore--a small chunk of the country's over 150,000 Filipino population. Still, the Comelec chose it along with Hong Kong to be the site of overseas poll automation because the country is small and Filipinos live relatively near each other.
Absentee voting in Singapore used to be done by mail. Ballots were mailed to voters who would then send them back.
"What is important here is if we have automation, it's equivalent to personal voting," said Comelec Commissioner Armando Velasco, head of the poll body's committee on overseas absentee voting. "Our countrymen here live very close to the Philippine Embassy, so they can
just come to cast their votes personally."
Seven PCOS machines will be deployed to Singapore for the month-long voting at the embassy's compound beginning April 10. Embassy employees will serve as special board of election inspectors and canvassers.
Embassy officials are concerned, though, that their small compound might not be able to handle huge crowds trooping to vote, especially since Singapore has had a high voter turnout in previous elections. They just hope voters won't come all at the last minute.
The machines will be turned off at the end of voting everyday, but the number of votes cast will not be affected, Comelec representatives said.
On May 10, consolidated results from the embassy's canvassing laptop will be transmitted to the Comelec and other servers in Manila. Embassy representatives will also fly to Manila to personally hand over the 30 printed election results to the designated recipients.
All an all, P40 million was earmarked for overseas poll automation in Singapore and Hong Kong, Velasco said, in hopes it will succeed.
Lack of awareness
Comelec and Philippine embassy officials admit, however, that informing Filipino voters about poll automation is an enormous task.
Many, if not all, of them know nothing about poll automation. Asked what she knows about automation, Catherine Loredo, an accountant and registered overseas voter, bluntly said, "No."
Her sister, an IT expert, knows a little about the automated system. But she feels it might fail.
"I'm not sure if the system is fool-proof," she said. "Definitely, switching and changing of numbers can happen especially during transmission."
Another Filipino professional, Tess Rañeses, is not very comfortable with machines invalidating "over voted" portions of the ballot, and the fact that there's no extra ballot for voters who commit mistakes.
"I feel like my votes will be wasted," she said after inserting a pre-shaded ballot with mistakes, which the machine rejected.
Despite doubts and fears, both the Comelec and Philippine embassy are bent on pushing through with automation.
Ambassador Minda Cruz believes Filipinos overseas will eventually embrace the system. "It's very interesting. It's something that the community would be interested to learn," she said.
She added that the embassy will launch a massive information drive, going around churches, malls, and other places where many Filipinos gather. For domestic helpers who are rarely or not allowed to take days off, letters will be sent to their employers to allow them to vote.
Before polls open, the Comelec would have to make sure the machines and ballots are delivered on time, embassy employees are trained, voters are informed, and all other preparations put in place. April 10 is nearly just a month away.