By Mary Ann Ll. Reyes
The Philippine Star
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) Advisory Council recently held a weeklong vendors’ demo for technology providers as part of its early preparations for the automation of the 2013 mid-term elections.
Upon learning that Smartmatic-Total Information Management (TIM) — the Comelec’s private partner in the country’s first-ever computerized balloting last year — had taken part in the demo, a civil society group styling itself as a poll watchdog quickly issued a statement urging the Comelec to ban the firm in the bidding for the automation technology in the mid-term polls, even with the elections still a good 17 months away.
Smartmatic-TIM was the firm that provided the automation technology and machines in the May 2010 national and local elections, which delivered an overwhelming victory for the opposition presidential bet, as well as accurate poll results, not in weeks, but mostly in just hours or a day or two.
We already know about all these, because many of us took part in this first-ever, yet highly successful, automated national elections in the country, which received accolades not only here but abroad as well, and for a brief moment, made us all proud to be democracy-loving Filipinos once again.
The civil society group-cum-election watchdog that has called for Smartmatic’s disqualification brands itself as the AES Watch (with AES standing for Automated Election System). Its members include the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), NAMFREL, the Philippine Computer Society Foundation, and transparentelections.org.ph.
This is the group of information technology experts whose Open Elections System (OES) was rejected by the Comelec as Smartmatic’s AES technology emerged winner in the public bidding for an automated system for the 2010 elections.
CenPEG et al had pushed for OES — a rival technology combining manual counting of votes at the precincts with computerized canvassing — that the Comelec deemed was not only inadequate, but also contrary to the provisions of Republic Act 9369 or the Automated Elections Law.
Now that we’re looking at this story in the right perspective, we can more or less gauge the reason why AES Watch wants AES and its Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines disqualified. It’s actually a simple strategy to eliminate the competition this early in the game.
AES Watch is apparently banking on the fact that it now has a formidable ally inside the Comelec who could turn the tide in its favor, despite the flawed automation technology it is pushing for the 2013 elections.
Augusto “Gus” Lagman, a prominent member of this group, is now a Comelec commissioner. Lagman was among the 12 architects of the OES technology that AES Watch wanted the electoral watchdog to use in the 2010 elections.
Very briefly, the OES provides for manual voting and counting and manually produced Election Returns encoded by different operators into a semi-automated Canvassing System.
Imagine how this would go on any Election Day, along with the countless potentials for cheating, and you get a general idea why the Comelec rejected this proposal. In plain and simple language, it means a return to the dagdag-bawas scheme that failed to make a comeback in last year’s balloting. Naturally, Lagman, a rabid OES proponent, would counter any attempt by other companies to provide the Comelec with a more sophisticated means of automating our election system. Along with his allies in civil society, Lagman can make a case out of Smartmatic, or any other technology provider for that matter, which is seen as a potential competitor of the OES.
In its statement, AES Watch had alleged that the technology used in the May 2010 polls “failed to deliver according to the Terms of Reference and the basic technical requirements of transparency, accuracy, reliability, and auditability as provided for by the poll automation law.”
Can AES Watch dispute the fact that leading members of the international community, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had heaped praises on the Philippines for the successful conduct of the 2010 elections?
Did they forget the fact that then Comelec commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal reported last year that officials from different European states and countries like Kenya, Nigeria and Liberia were planning to visit the Philippines to find out how it had successfully carried out the country’s first-ever automated national elections.
As for public approval of the automated system used in the May 2010 elections, separate surveys done by prominent and highly credible polling firms (Social Weather Stations, Pulse Asia and StratPOLLS) show that majority of Filipino voters had lauded the conduct of the polls insofar as protecting the integrity of the ballot and dramatically improving the Comelec’s credibility with the quick delivery of results in most electoral races.
Is AES Watch aware that its insistence on scouting for a new technology provider for the 2013 elections puts the Comelec in a tight bind because of its limited budget?
Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr., in disclosing the Comelec’s precarious situation at a recent Kapihan media forum at the Diamond Hotel, pointed out that they had asked for a P10.2-billion budget for 2012 to prepare for the following year’s political exercise, but only got P7 billion from Congress.
If the Comelec bids out the technology for the 2013 elections and gets a new provider it would have to work around a P7-billion budget, which Brillantes said would not be enough for the number of voting machines it wants to procure.
Brillantes explained that the Comelec wants to increase the number of voting machines from 80,000 to 146,000 units, to avoid the long queues experienced by voters in the 2010 elections.
The long queuing problem was actually one of the complaints of AES Watch about the 2010 elections, which does not say anything about quality of the technology, but more on the quantity of the machines used during the balloting.
Remember that the Comelec would have to pay not only for the technology of a new provider, but also for new voting machines, the training and familiarization workshops for election officials and inspectors, expenses for the technical requirements, voter education programs, maintenance expenses for the machines, new sets of voting materials and other incidental costs.
The Comelec cannot go back to manual balloting because the law provides the mandatory conduct of automated elections.
Brillantes had also pointed out that the shortcomings, if any, of the PCOS units used for the 2010 elections could be corrected, especially because the machines have already been road tested, so to speak.
Incidentally, the Carter Center, founded by former US President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, has released the final report of its international election observation mission on the Philippines’ first-ever computerized balloting held last year.
This mission lauded the Comelec and the other parties responsible for the clean and orderly conduct of the elections, which it said was “marked by relatively high public confidence and trust on the use of the optical mark recognition technology.”
Incidentally, the Carter Center’s reputation does not just rely on having the name of an esteemed former American president on its marquee, but on a sterling track record that includes 80 election observation missions in 30 countries over the past two decades.
For comments, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org