IT expert: Full automated polls impossible

Posted at 05/07/2010 3:08 AM | Updated as of 05/08/2010 12:20 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Commission on Elections (Comelec) officials on Thursday declared the testing and sealing of Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines in Metro Manila--counting in the cities of Paranaque, Makati and Marikina--a 100% success.

"It's all systems go for the election officers. We're prepared for D-day May 10," Comelec-National Capital Region (NCR) Election Director Atty. Michael Dioneda told ANC's "The Rundown" on Thursday. 

He added reports from the field suggest testing and sealing has been successful because new flashcards are all functioning and reading accurately. Dioneda added he expects other areas to get the reconfigured compact flash cards by Saturday.

But amid such delays, and with limited time left to election day, Halalang Marangal secretary-general Roberto Verzola expressed doubts that full automated polls are even possible.

"We are a bit worried that the compact flash cards will not reach their destination on time," Verzola said on ANC's "The Rundown" on Thursday.

"It is our wish that it would push through, but if we look at our options, I'm very pessimistic that the automated system can push through in most precincts. And the manual count has back-up for 30%, so there's a question mark for the remaining 70%. We're down to a no-option situation it seems... We have been painted into a corner, we are now in a corner where every option has been shut," he added.

Concern in ARMM

Halalang Marangal, which monitored the 2007 elections, aims to achieve honest elections and truthful statistics. But amid delays in setting up the system for automated elections, and apparent inaccuracies in the system, Verzola predicted the automated elections may be characterized by fraud.

"We are concerned that some of the provinces they said the flashcards would not reach are precisely those areas that were problem areas in 2007, 2004, some ARMM [Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao] provinces. You can expect cheating to happen again for these provinces," Verzola said

He cited the possibility many of these precincts may see armed goons take over the conduct of elections, or the election will be foregone altogether. He also noted how local officials have managed to manipulate voting,

"That's been done routinely in the past, and the same can happen this year. Nothing prevents them from shading those ballots themselves," Verzola noted.

Riddled with inaccuracies

Citing recent gross errors encountered by the automated system, which called for a reconfiguration of 76,000 compact flash cards, Verzola said the machine is also capable of manifesting subtle inaccuracies with nonetheless far-reaching implications.

Asked by Verzola how Comelec measured the percentage of accuracy of the PCOS machines, Dioneda could only refer to the day's assessment. "I can only talk about my experience. Today, I was in Makati High School. It's 100% accurate. All votes were counted," he said.

"A 10-ballot test set is not enough to measure the accuracy that was specified by the COMELEC which was 99.95%," Verzola countered. "When I did the computation, you need 1,762 ballots to test with a 95% level of confidence to meet the specification. A 1-2% inaccuracy can make a big difference in very close contests," he said.

Manual count

Amid such reservations, Verzola believes the Comelec should review its rules to accommodate a checking mechanism that prioritizes accuracy over speed, and hold a manual count of the votes.

"Comelec should've prepared for the 100% possibility of a manual count as a back-up system, as proposed by other groups. It does not mean we've abandoned automation, but it's a double check." Verzola added.

Even if the Supreme Court were to overturn the Comelec's decision junking a manual count of the votes, Verzola said it would be too late in the day to put the process in place.

"If anything comes out of it, it's going to be a post-mortem analysis that can be analyzed after the elections. Today is a bad time to do post-mortem analysis," Verzola said, citing how all stakeholders are still trying to feel their way through the automated election system (AES). 

72-hour proclamation: What's the rush?

Meantime, Verzola questioned why Comelec should rush to proclaim the poll winners 72 hours after the polls.

"The Comelec should not be in such a hurry to proclaim because we have until June 30 before these officials end their terms," Verzola said. "The Comelec can set a non-extendable deadline. Let's say one week before June 30. Whoever is considered winner then, they can be proclaimed. But that gives us a month to double check things because machines can make mistakes, fraud can happen. After a candidate is proclaimed, it will be very hard, if at all, to reverse the proclamation."

But Dioneda said the poll body is mandated to proclaim the winners by May 13 or 14.

"It's a matter of giving the complainant a chance to air his protest and give due course to it. Anyway, the period is June 30. Unfortunately, in the general instructions, these issues are not pre-proclamation issues, and the winner will be declared immediately after the votes have been tallied." Dioneda explained.

The sanctity of the ballot

"Automation can help solve our past problems but needs to be used properly. If used in the wrong way, then it can worsen the situation and make cheating easier," Verzola noted. He cited the case of automated elections in the United States:

"The U.S. 2000 and 2004 polls are increasingly seen as stolen elections, and these were done with automated elections, so it's not automatic that when we use automation, we will solve the cheating. They have to be applied in a mindful way, in a transparent way, and so far, we have not seen it in the AES system we're using today."

With the uncertainties hounding the country's first fully-automated polls, Verzola said voters must guard the election process to ensure the sanctity of the ballot.

"What we should be doing is calling people to realize that no machine can help us stop cheating. It's the people themselves, vigilant and asserting their own democratic power as a people that can stop cheating," Verzola said. "I think the people can follow their conscience in voting, and make sure there are poll watchers, and report to election watchdogs in case the ER [election return] can't be relied upon anymore when it's been compromised."