Premature campaign; automation back-up plans

MANILA, Philippines—All those intending to run in the May 10, 2010 polls should read and reread Penera vs Comelec (Sept. 11, 2009), penned by Justice Minita V. Chico-Nazario, holding that once their certificate of candidacy (COC) is filed, candidates can no longer engage in campaign activities. Campaigning is allowed only for 120 days prior Election Day. This means that from Nov. 30, 2009 (the last day for filing COCs) until Feb. 9, 2010 (the official start of the campaign period), candidates may no longer undertake any activity to promote their election.

Question: Even now, many have already set up billboards, ads and infomercials announcing their run for the presidency or other public offices. Can they be disqualified? No, because prior to the filing of their COCs, they cannot be deemed “candidates” yet. Thus, legally, there had been no “premature” campaigning. But by Nov. 30, all campaign activities must stop. Otherwise, the offending candidates would be disqualified.

This 8-7 split decision, with Justice Antonio T. Carpio leading the dissenters, has many ramifications, which I will discuss next time.

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Back up plans. Meantime, let me continue last week’s piece on election automation. The Supreme Court’s decision in Roque vs Comelec (Sept. 10, 2009), written by Justice Presbitero J. Velasco Jr., resolved mainly the legal issues. Nonetheless, it tackled a few contentious technical points.

First, it said that the “Source Code, defined in RA 9369 as ‘human readable instructions that define what the computer equipment will do’… shall be available and opened for review by political parties, candidates and the citizens’ arms or their representatives.”

Second, it explained that “the possibility of hacking is very slim” because the “machines are only online when they transmit results, which would take around one or two minutes. In order to hack the system during this tiny span of vulnerability, a super computer would be required.”

Third, “the memory card to be used during the elections is encrypted and read-only—meaning no illicit program can be executed or introduced into the memory card.” Fourth, if automation fails, the commission has a “fall-back strategy” of providing “2,000 spare PCOS machines on top of the 80,000 units assigned to an equal number of precincts throughout the country.”

This fall-back strategy will address these scenarios: “(1) the PCOS fails to scan ballots; (2) the PCOS scans the ballots but fails to print election returns (ERs); and/or (3) the PCOS prints but fails to transmit the ERs.” In case items (1) or (2) occur, “a spare PCOS (one of the extra 2,000), if available, will be brought in or, if not available, the PCOS of another precinct shall be used.” Should all PCOS in a municipality/city fail, then the ballots shall be manually counted according to rules to be prepared by Comelec. In case item (3) occurs, the malfunctioning PCOS shall be brought to the nearest poll center that has a functioning transmission facility.

Fifth, even if all the 82,000 PCOS break down, manual count and transmission could still be resorted to. Because of these back-up plans, it concluded, “Failure of elections consequent to voting machines failure would, in fine, be a very remote possibility.”

No guarantee. Having said all that, the decision still conceded that it could not assure “a successful election unmarred by fraud, violence, and like irregularities… Neither will it guarantee… the effectiveness of the voting machines and the integrity of the counting and consolidation software imbedded in them.”

Also, the decision prudently admitted that “the road towards a successful (automated) election would certainly be rough and bumpy.” Thus, it called on “all advocates of orderly and honest elections, men and women of goodwill, to smoothen the way and assist Comelec personnel address the fears expressed about the integrity of the system.”

All in all, the decision is a resounding vote of confidence on the Comelec’s ability to conduct automated elections. It also said that unless our electorate cooperates, the commission would not achieve this monumental task of modernizing our election system.

Dialogue needed. This confidence in the Comelec is borne of the Supreme Court’s implicit trust not only in its present leaders but also in its Advisory Council composed of Ray Anthony Roxas Chua III (Commission on Information and Communications Technology), chairman, Geronimo L. Sy (Department of Education), Fortunato de la Peña (Department of Science and Technology), Manuel C. Ramos Jr. (University of the Philippines), Renato B. Garcia (Philippine Electronics and Telecommunications Federation), Lilia C. Guillermo (Chief Information Officers Forum), Ivan John E. Uy (Philippine Computer Society), Henrietta T. de Villa (Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting) and Andie C. Lasala (Commission on Electoral Reforms).

For its part, the Comelec should heed the Court’s exhortation and welcome all constructive comments, engage in continuing dialogue and explain its processes to earn the full trust of our citizens. In this spirit of transparency and vigilance, not of faultfinding or nitpicking, I will present next week the persistent logistical and technical issues—some of them submitted by readers—for the purpose of clearing them or, at the very least, of monitoring them. In this way, I hope to promote a consensus for an honest, orderly, peaceful and automated 2010 election.

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