Editorial

Troubling, frightening

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It’s either PCOS (precinct count optical scan) machines or manual polls, says Commission on Elections Chair Sixto Brillantes, in his latest challenge to critics who continue to question the poll body’s capability to conduct automated elections this year. Brillantes had declared the mock elections the Comelec held last week in 20 voting centers in 10 areas nationwide a success, but many IT groups and citizen watchdogs are not mollified, citing the many troubling glitches and last-minute emergencies that marred the exercise.

Brillantes’ flippant response, disingenuous at best and outrageous at worst, is guaranteed to further agitate anyone with a modicum of interest in seeing the country progress politically with automated polls that are honest, credible and foolproof. The argument, after all, has never been about technology versus manual counting, but whether the technology that the Comelec has procured for the 2013 elections, at great expense and with sky-high expectations, is indeed the right one.

Bobby M. Tuazon, director for policy studies of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, thinks otherwise. “The Comelec will end up with a pirated technology if it uses Smartmatic’s PCOS voting system,” he wrote in a recent opinion piece published in this paper. “The reason: On May 23, 2012, the United-States-based Dominion Voting Systems, the real owner of the election technology, terminated a 2009 licensing agreement with Smartmatic. Thus, the Venezuelan company’s access to the program systems ceased, making it unable to correct the program errors that it finally admitted early last year… Late last December, the Comelec revised the election calendar because no source code (or program system) has been submitted for certification. Early last month, the poll body indicated that it would use instead the program that was designed for the aborted 2011 elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.”

That fundamental flaw is but one of many that various IT experts and concerned observers have lobbed at the PCOS technology that the Comelec seems at baffling pains to stay loyal to, despite the doubts raised over its efficacy. The mock polls have only intensified those doubts, as persistent reports of breakdowns and glitches during the exercise belied Brillantes’ effort at dismissing such problems as “minor” ones.

Minor? As observed during the mock elections, PCOS machines, for instance, had difficulty accepting ballots with some crumpling. That alone presents frightening possibilities. The ballots are for nationwide elections, and will thus contain a long list of names of candidates for local and national positions. Is it safe to expect the ballot to be in physically pristine condition after being handled by ordinary voters who may take their time ticking off the names of their candidates? But that is the ridiculous bar that the finicky PCOS machines seem to have set before these accept any ballot.

That’s not the end of the ballot problem. Reportedly, it can only be fed into the machine when folded in a certain way—another frilly requirement that guarantees delay and confusion come Election Day. Also, at a number of places during the mock polls, the designated board of election inspectors had difficulty inputting their pin codes, a problem the Comelec said could be easily addressed by replacing the machines. “We have over 76,000 polling precincts but we have over 81,000 machines, so the excess machines will really be used as replacement units for contingency purposes,” said Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez.

But that begs the question: How fast can the Comelec replace those machines on Election Day? Pinpointing the areas nationwide that would experience machine breakdowns on the day itself is an impossible task, and relying on the logistically cumbersome measure of physically replacing computers once they conk out, while queues of voters grow ever longer outside, threatens to be a recipe for election failure, or at least the disenfranchisement of many voters.

From any perspective, these are not minor problems; these strike at the very heart of the credibility of the automated election process. The machines have to work with such accuracy and reliability that, on Election Day, any glitches will be universally accepted as negligible. That is the bare minimum the public will accept from the Comelec and its favored technology. Anything less, and it’ll be chaos.

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