May 16, 2013
References: Fr. Joe Dizon , Dr. Gani Tapang
As expected, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) hailed the just concluded 2013 mid-term polls as a success and a validation of the automated election system (AES) that relies on the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines. Like in 2010, when the AES was first used in the national elections, poll officials underscore the alleged “speed” with which results are canvassed, consolidated and released to the public as an unmistakable proof of the success of the system. According to the Comelec and its citizen’s arm Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the 2013 automated polls were allegedly an improvement compared to those held in 2010. According to them, the incidence of PCOS failures has been reduced by half.
We strongly disagree. The 2013 elections again showcased the long-festering problems with the Philippine electoral system: from the basic problems of vote-buying, violence, and elite domination, to the malfunctioning/failed PCOS machines, disenfranchisement and voter discouragement, problematic and slow transmission of results, and the lack of transparency and integrity in the results.
We believe that a quick tally does not necessarily translate to clean elections, nor does this conceal the serious flaws of the AES designed and controlled by private foreign vendors led by Smartmatic International Corp. And with the latest developments, we can also see that the transmission of results and completion of the canvassing is in fact much slower than what was earlier claimed by Comelec and Smartmatic.
From the onset, we have ardently questioned the use of PCOS technology in reading and counting our votes because it lacks the basic requirements of transparency and verifiability.
This fundamental defect of the PCOS AES has been aggravated when the Comelec failed to implement the basic security safeguards mandated under R.A. 9369 or the Poll Automation Law, particularly the review of the PCOS source code by political parties and citizen’s groups prior to the elections. This was supposed to ensure the trustworthiness of the software that will read and count our votes. But because the AES relies on unaccountable foreign firms, the country was held hostage by the corporate dispute between Smartmatic, the vendor of the PCOS machines, and Dominion Voting Systems, the patent owner of the source code. The so-called PCOS “source code review” that was supposedly started days before the polls was worthless in terms of ensuring the integrity of the machines. It was nothing but a publicity stunt by Comelec chair Sixto Brillantes Jr. in a vain attempt to silence critics.
The PPCRV quick count fiasco meanwhile showed bloated results during the early stages of the transmission of votes, and affirmed and heightened the fears of massive and systematic fraud under the Smartmatic-controlled AES. To correct the blunder, which PPCRV attributed to “formatting error”, Smartmatic had to step in and tweak the system, underlining how the foreign firm controls practically every aspect of the elections. That they can intervene anytime during the voting and consolidation process just heightens suspicion.
The entire election day also was marred with numerous PCOS problems ranging from failure to initialize, ballot rejection and unexplained shutdown, among others. In some cases, election inspectors had to be creative just to fix the technical problems encountered by the machines. Odd sights such as election inspectors using broomsticks to help the PCOS machine accept the ballots, ironing damp ballots or trimming ballots so they will fit into the machine were common throughout the country. PCOS problems resulted in long queues and overcrowded precincts that discouraged a number of voters. These cases were conveniently excluded by the Comelec and PPCRV in their claim that PCOS problems had been reduced by half and merely referred to PCOS machines that totally broke down and had to be replaced. They did not even include those machines that required replacement but were never attended to.
Serious as these issues are, we are still just scratching the surface of what ails our elections. Underlying the PCOS problems and the entire AES is the fact that our elections are structurally undemocratic and still decided by guns, goons and gold. Political clans and the economic elite still lord it over the electoral system, leaving the public with practically no option but to choose from among the same families and groups over and over again. Even the party list system which is supposed to be for the marginalized and under-represented has been hijacked by these families and groups, further narrowing the already very limited space for those the poor.
The poverty of the people is taken advantage of by traditional politicians who continue to engage in patronage politics and vote buying to perpetuate their rule. For these political dynasties and groups, government position means more opportunities to enrich themselves and protect their economic interests and those of their patrons, and thus will do every trick in the book to stay or be in power. Modernizing the voting process through the use of technology will not necessarily solve these fundamental problems. Unfortunately, the privatized and foreign-controlled AES only creates more opportunities for the ruling elite to engage in manipulation and fraud to win government positions.
We need basic reforms in our electoral system. While automation is not necessarily wrong, we reiterate that we have to junk the flawed AES imposed on us by the Comelec and its foreign partners. The expensive and untrustworthy PCOS technology of Smartmatic must be abandoned and should no longer be used in the 2016 national elections. Instead, we must immediately develop local technology and harness and maximize the country’s vibrant IT community. In the past, there were already indigenous and less expensive automation systems that were offered as alternative to PCOS but outrightly dismissed by the Comelec in favor of the multi-billion peso contracts with Smartmatic and other private, foreign firms. Finally, as part of the genuine electoral reforms that we need to pursue, the Comelec and Smartmatic must be held accountable for blatantly and grossly subverting our right as a people to democratic, transparent and credible elections. ###