Trust

MANILA, Philippines–Many are asking why I have devoted an “inordinate” amount of attention to the 2010 election and to the Commission on Elections. Indeed, I have written seven times on them during the last two months because I want to restore public trust in our democratic institutions, starting with the elections and the Comelec. Honest, orderly and peaceful election is the bedrock of democracy. Without it, democracy becomes a farce.

Low level of trust. Opinion surveys released regularly by the Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia show dismaying levels of trust in most of our institutions, including the presidency, the legislature and even the judiciary. When trust is lost or compromised, governance becomes problematic. This is true in every organization, public or private, big or small. When the constituents no longer trust their leaders, goals become impossible dreams.

Even in relationships like marriage and family, once trust is lost, trouble ensues. When a wife no longer trusts her husband or when the children no longer trust their parents, the family breaks. By the same token, when the people no longer trust their president, governance becomes extremely difficult. And yes, trust in the new president begins with his or her credible election.

For the Comelec, public esteem skidded abysmally from the invalidation by the Supreme Court of the Mega Pacific contract for the automation of the 2004 election, to the “Hello Garci” scandal, to the NBN-ZTE brouhaha. Fortunately, we now have a new team at the poll agency, who had nothing to do with these contortions and who have shown admirable grit in reinventing the agency. The new Comelec leaders concede that open and free dialogue is the best way to regain public trust.

Comelec’s answers. To bolster Comelec’s sincerity in dialoguing, Commissioner Rene V. Sarmiento has invited people to send their questions and comments to rvsarmiento@pacific.net.ph (with copy to me, so I can monitor them). A few days ago, he e-mailed his answers to the questions raised in my earlier columns. I asked him to post these answers in the website, http://www.ehope2010.ph, that he promised to set up soon.

I do not have the space to comment on his entire e-mail (like on how Comelec would conduct its voter education, or how it would solve the anticipated long queues during election day, or how it would tackle the logistical problem of printing and delivering 1,630 different ballots and PCOS to 1,630 towns nationwide during the short election period). Those who care to know more about these items can access them later at http://www.ehope2010.ph. But today, I will discuss two of Sarmiento’s answers.

First, on Sept. 27, I wrote that, during an ANC Forum, Comelec’s Ferdinand Rafanan (and, may I now add, Smartmatic’s Cesar Flores) said that when voters err in “shading” their ballots or if they smudge them, the voting machines (called PCOS) would reject the erroneous or smudged ballots.

And when fed with these ballots, the PCOS—in front of the TV camera—indeed rejected them. The Comelec-Smartmatic officials said that voters should refer this rejection problem to the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI). In that same column, I opined that such recourse would violate the ballots’ secrecy since the BEI would have to look at them.

Clearer answers needed. Without denying that the PCOS rejected the erroneous/smudged ballots during the ANC Forum, Sarmiento simply said, “the PCOS will not reject the ballots in case of over voting. They will merely not count the position wherein there was an over voting.” He added that if a voter shades more than 12 senatorial ovals, “the PCOS will not count the votes for the senatorial position because of such over voting but the machine will count the other valid votes cast for other electoral positions.”

This answer is confusing. TV viewers—including anchors Ricky Carandang and Pinky Webb—witnessed the PCOS’ refusal to accept the erroneous ballot. Sarmiento’s response that the PCOS “will not reject the ballots” was belied by the stark TV demonstration.

Second, on the important question of how to prevent insider fraud, Sarmiento explained, “Republic Act No. 9369 provides that the Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) shall certify that the AES, including the hardware and software components, is operating properly, securely and accurately prior to the 2010 national and presidential elections. This certification of the TEC shall be issued only after the system and its source code have been duly examined and reviewed. Pursuant to this provision of the law, the Comelec awarded to SysTest Labs, a United States-based software testing company, (the task) to review the source code supplied by Smartmatic to Comelec.

“SysTest Labs will test the system’s security, telecommunications, error notification, auditing, and recovery, as well as its functions under various load and stress situations. Each module of the source code will be assessed and checked against industry standards.”

The problem with this reply is that the results of the test will be known only in February next year, when there would be no more time to contest them. No wonder, the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) filed a suit in the Supreme Court to compel Comelec to release the source code immediately.

My own assessment is that Comelec needs to explain more clearly these two issues: (1) the remedy in case of erroneous voting and (2) the prevention of insider fraud, including the early release of the source code.

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