Friday, September 11, 2009

Fight for a Clean and Fair 2010 Election

With the 2010 Election fast approaching, how far have you known about this Poll Automation? I’ve asked several friends what do they understand about it. Most of them thought computers will be used in casting their votes. That’s what I thought too, until I’ve attended an orientation from SMARTMATIC-TIM itself, the consortium who won the bid to handle the automation election. It was an eye-opener to me when I’ve learned that the Poll Automation doesn’t necessarily mean voters using computers to vote. Should computers be used, I can’t imagine how are they going to prepare for it and how will it be executed in such a way that this technology won’t alienate majority of the voting population. I can’t imagine the scenario in the remote places in the provinces, how the elderly and those who haven’t even touched a computer take on the process. They might rather not vote, at all, than get hurly-burly with the unfriendly and insensitive system. Not to mention the glitches that may arise caused by technology failures, and delays brought by system unfamiliarity and insufficient number of allocated computers per precinct. It’s ridiculous. Apparently, me and my peers got the whole concept wrong. And I’m just so relieved.

I thought I should be relieved until I’ve come to think things over. I don’t want to be apologetic and start with excuses of having not googled enough about Poll Automation, but as what I’ve heard, this system has long been used in the US or Europe. I never cared how they do their election before. I’m only after of who won. Unsurprisingly, given the lack of monetary capacity to adapt the technology, we’ve only just starting to look at the option of having a poll automated election. And, indeed, we will already be in full automation this 2010.

For those who haven’t had a glimpse of an idea how this poll automation works, I’d give a bits and pieces of what I’ve learned during the orientation. Poll automation election, in contrary to common assumption, is still a paper-based election. Paper ballots are still be used in casting our votes. Only, these ballots won’t just be dropped in a ballot box, instead it’s going to be fed – by the voter himself – and scanned in a Precinct Count Optical Scan machine (PCOS). Basically, the machine will read what in the ballots and save the information in a memory hub. The paper ballots are collected in a repository box attached to the machine. As explained, each machine in every precinct is programmed to accept and process only the number of ballots equal to the expected number of voters as recorded in master list. There will be no extra ballots to avoid the risk of these being used up to cheat. Once the number of scanned ballot has been sufficed, the machine will automatically lock and stop accepting ballot feeds. The machine will then be connected with internet, for about 2 minutes, to transmit the information generated from the scanned ballot to legal institutions where this information be ready for canvassing. The machine’s program can’t be altered by anybody, except by the one who’s holding the security key. But, all actions made by the machines – including all possible malicious alterations – are recorded in the system and can be printed out for verification. Should the machine break down during the course of the election period, a contingency machine is waiting to replace. Memory card from the defective machine will just be transferred to functioning machine.

At a quick look of it, the system sounds suave and promising. Worse comes to worst, the paper ballots are kept safe in the repository boxes for further validation. But here are how I weight things:

1. It, definitely, makes the casting of votes faster. The new ballots’ layout only entails shading of circles that corresponds to the selected candidate, unlike before when they have to write the complete name. Shading, surely, makes it faster.

2. It, definitely, makes the counting of votes faster. Results are, actually, being generated once the ballots were scanned. It updates every time another ballot is inserted to the machine. There is a live counting of results. We won’t be spending much time reading and tallying the votes after the precincts’ closing time.

3. Instant transporting – advance result transmission of results – instead of physical transporting. Once everyone listed in master list has voted, the machine will automatically lock and it can now transmit results to the head precincts and other institution involved in the canvassing or counting or election returns, when connected with an internet.

4. Voters, as many as the precincts can hold per batch, can simultaneously fill up the ballots and just queue when they have to insert the ballots to the machine

5. Probably, there will be less COMELEC manpower needed to run the cluster precincts or by the whole election process. Aside from there will be less to worry about unpaid COMELEC election precincts personnel, there will be less human error and less chances of cheating inducted by the precinct personnel.

1. Before anything else, we can’t take for granted the problem in familiarization of the voters to the new layout/design of the ballots. Frustratingly, majority of the (Filipino) public has a problem with coping up with changes, even as simple as ballot layouts, where you will just asked to shade. It’s just like taking a NEAT or NSAT exam. Of course, I won’t try to forget those who have never been to school, thus haven’t took these kinds of mandatory exams.

2. Unfamiliarity to the ballots leads to mistakes in filling it up. These
mistakes may cause the ballot to get void, depends on the tolerance level of the programmed optical scanner take those mistakes. They will only allocate exact number of ballots, hence such mistakes should be avoided. In short, voters can’t make mistakes. Oh, yes, Filipinos are very good at following instructions. *sarcasm*

3. The fear that the machine might get hacked during the transmission of the data to head precinct/s can’t be consoled enough by any form of guarantee. The damage will be reparable when the hacking had been detected right away. Dubious election results can then be verified through immediate manual reading of votes using the paper ballots. What if nobody can detect that all the while all the information forwarded to the canvassing precincts were already manipulated?

4. The hacking worries don’t make it up all when talking about the disadvantages of technology, there’s also the apprehension that a cheat program might have just been already installed in the machine? Once the results are generated by the computerized optical scanner, we wouldn’t really be sure if the results shown match what are in the ballots. We don’t worry about an outside force here to modify the results, instead we worry about an inside job, an internal technology cheat.

5. I got confused if I should include this in my list or if I’d just discuss about this in another paragraph below. But it is already 2:16am here and I should be hitting the sack by now, so I might just mention the topic here. The one big issue is about how confident are we to SMARTMATIC – TIM. Who is SMARTMATIC – TIM? The legality of awarding the project to them has been challenged by political critics. I’ve learned that SMARTMATIC doesn’t have a good reputation – I won’t be digging on the details – even abroad. Reportedly, they have been investigated by the higher courts in some State abroad over crucial issues. And, as to what this company has to do with the COMELEC why they need to register to SEC as, probably, one entity that we do not know exactly. The news hasn’t been reporting enough information about this issue. There are a lot of information gaps making it difficult to for the public to fully understand. Speculations of some political critics are more substantive and interesting to hear out than the news is reporting. So, as much as I wanted to share my opinion on this, obviously a critical issue, I can’t because of lack of enough information. But this is one side that we need to know more about to help us finally suspend judgment if the 2010 Automated Election will be a fair one.

Maging mapanuri at maging alerto para sa isang patas at malinis na halalan sa taong 2010.
(Be critical and vigilant for a fair and clean election on 2010)

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