National consensus for e-Hope 2010

Now is the time to forge a national consensus to assure a democratic transfer of power next year. Much has been said and written about doomsday scenarios due to possible failure of elections. While it is prudent to prepare contingency plans, the top priority, I think, is to unite and hammer out a national consensus for an electronic, honest, orderly and peaceful election in 2010 (e-Hope 2010).

The larger war. The legal battle is over. The highest court of the land has spoken. But the larger war to conquer disunity, fears and doubts about the Smartmatic-TIM automation system is still raging. To win this war, I do not propose to ignore, much less cast aside, criticisms of the perceived shortcomings of the system. Rather, the challenge is to identify problems, to find creative solutions, and thereby to increase the chances of success. If, however, the problems prove insurmountable, the options should include a reversion to manual count.

This is the first time that a nationwide automation system shall be implemented in our country. Naturally, there would be gaps and weaknesses. During an ANC Forum earlier this week, director Ferdinand Rafanan of the Comelec law department candidly admitted that automation could spawn new forms of cheating, like “pre-shading of ballots and shading of unused ballots.”

At the same forum, Gov. Ben Evardone of Eastern Samar aired the obvious: most voters—especially those in the rural areas—have not even seen a computer, much less a Precinct Count Optical Scanner (PCOS). The PCOS is the machine through which voters must individually feed their completed ballots to have them electronically validated and counted.

Indeed, because of ignorance or failure to follow instructions, voters can make mistakes in “shading” their ballots. For instance, if they shade more than 12 ovals for senators, or if they smudge or write on their ballots, the PCOS will reject the ballots and the voters may not know why.

According to the Comelec, the rejection problem should be referred to the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI), which would determine the solution. But in so doing, a gap opens up: the secrecy of the vote would be violated because the face of the ballot would have to be inspected by the BEI. In the meantime, the queue of voters wanting to use the machine would get longer, remembering that one PCOS would be assigned to as many as 1,000 voters in five clustered precincts. Aside from frayed nerves, the result could be irregularities and disenfranchisement.

Logistics and other problems. Logistics should be carefully monitored. Under the manual system, voters write the names of the candidates on blank ballots. The blank ballots are generic in the sense that they are alike in most precincts.

But under the automated system, the machines, ballots and other election paraphernalia are “precinct specific,” not generic. The ballots are specially preprinted for every town because the candidates for mayor, vice mayor and councilors in one town would be different from the next. Hence, the ballots and voting machines assigned in that town cannot be used in any other place. This means that the ballots and machines intended for one town are useless if delivered to any other location.

Imagine the logistical problem of printing millions of different sets of ballots and calibrating 82,000 machines for different towns, and delivering them on time to the correct precincts during a very limited election period. There are 1,630 towns in the country requiring 1,630 different ballot versions and 1,630 different machine calibrations.

There is also the daunting job of training about 500,000 teachers who will run the 250,000 polling booths on Election Day plus recruiting and training 40,000 IT personnel who will solve technical problems at the polling centers.

Insider fraud. A major battle to win is insider fraud. Reader Manu Alcuaz writes that “the real danger is from many e-Garcillanos that could be hiding in the Comelec…The greatest danger of fraud… will come from insiders in Comelec and computer vendors, not from outsiders.” This could result in what reader Rene Azurin calls a massive “automated dagdag-bawas.”

The Center for People Empowerment and Governance (CenPEG) has sent a technical paper showing “30 vulnerabilities and safeguards vs. cheating” which I can no longer discuss now for lack of space. I am not saying it is completely correct but CenPEG has given automation a lot of study and deserves to be heard. After all, this group is highlighting not only vulnerabilities but also safeguards to cure them.

On the other hand, reader Roberto Verzola sent a paper reviewing the “problems, errors and failures” that have plagued automated elections in other countries. He also offered a simple suggestion to minimize errors: the double entry method in recording tallies, similar to that used in business accounting.

I can go on and on writing the problems and solutions posed by many well-meaning readers. But to win the war, the top priority is to forge a national consensus on e-Hope 2010. Comelec Chair Jose A. R. Melo wants to leave a legacy of successfully computerizing our election system. So, I urge him to support this national consensus on e-Hope 2010. Let everyone join in fulfilling this noble goal. Truly, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

(I will tackle the ramifications of the new Supreme Court decision on premature election campaigning at another time.)

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