POSTSCRIPT / January 4, 2004 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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All eyes are on SC as poll clock ticks on

CONTRACT HANGS: While candidates are rushing their last-minute filing of certificates of candidacy, the Commission on Elections is still wrestling with crucial details of the national elections set on May 10, 2004, a Monday.

A hint of uncertainty hangs over the holding of the elections, because of the Comelec’s failure to give an iron-clad assurance on the integrity of the electoral process.

One major problem involves the purchase of computers and counting machines for the elections expected to see some 35 million voters trooping to more than 192,000 precincts from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. to elect 17,680 officials from the president down to councilors.

There are just four months to go before Election Day, yet the P1.3-billion contract awarded to the supplier of the vote-counting machines is still being reviewed by the Supreme Court, where taxpayers (not losing bidders) had questioned its legality.

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COURT RULING DUE: Word from court sources has it that a decision due this week would invalidate the purchase contract on the vote of at least eight of the 14 sitting justices.

Such decision could further delay preparations, including the printing and distribution of ballots. If the deal is invalidated and the Comelec or the supplier moves for reconsideration of the adverse ruling, more time would be lost.

In the confusion, everyone would be wondering if the elections were to be computerized or done the old-fashion way, or with a combination of both systems, or if elections were to be held at all!

Mel “Batas” Mauricio, host of popular free legal counseling program over dzBB and Channel 7, said such confusion, could set the stage for a rumored “NoEl” (no elections) plot.

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NO TRACK RECORD: We won’t be surprised if the Supreme Court struck down the contract. It seems to us the tribunal has no choice, if it pays attention to the terms of reference governing the bidding for the election hardware.

The terms require that the bidders must have a track record of at least three years. The winning bidder, Mega Pacific eSolutions Inc., was incorporated only on Feb. 27, 2003, or just 11 days before the bidding on March 10, 2003!

No wonder the bidder could not show financial statements for the past three years. If a bidder has not been in existence that long, it should have dealt in the hardware involved for at least five years.

On both counts, Mega Pacific apparently did not have the required track record. Yet the firm was awarded the juicy contract! Will the SC let this pass?

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‘STAND-ALONE’ ISSUE: A contentious technical point is the requirement imposed by the election modernization law that the automated counting machines be “stand-alone.”

The Korean-made model submitted by the winning bidder had a communication port to which a cable could be connected for two-way transmission. Infotech authority Gus Lagman warned that this makes the machine vulnerable to tampering.

Meanwhile, a group describing itself as “ethical hackers” had challenged the Comelec’s claim that the counting machine was hack-proof.

Ramon Ike Seneres, former head of the National Computer Center, said: “If my team cannot disable the computer within eight hours, we will apologize and bow to the Comelec. If we disable it within eight hours however, we will ask the Comelec en banc to stop the implementation of automated counting nationwide.”

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IN S.C. HANDS: At the moment, however, the fate of the machines is in the hands of the Supreme Court whose deliberations focus on legalities, not the technical features of the equipment.

But the Supreme Court may just lapse again into its occasional decisions colored by non-legal considerations. It could approve the questioned deal with the observation that to nullify the contract at this late date could lead to chaos.

Even with this “judicial accommodation,” the Comelec would still end up with a confusing combination of computerized counting in some municipalities and manual counting in other precincts in towns not supplied with counting machines.

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RISKY BALLOT TRANSFER: “Confusing” is a mild description of a situation where there are two kinds of ballots and two methods (computerized and manual) of counting them.

In a computerized scenario, the ballots cast in the precinct are collected and carried at the end of the day to the municipal center where a counting machine waits to count all the ballots from the local precincts assigned to it.

In the past, the transfer of ballot boxes with election results had been marred by hijacking, switching and other forms of cheating. With computerization, what could happen when ballots from the barangays are transferred to the town center for counting?

How would computerized counting be taken by Filipinos who want their ballots counted one by one in front of them? What happens when they are reduced to simply watching machines spit out cold copies of supposed scores?

While this is going on in computerized areas, the old slow manual counting will be used in the “backward” barangays. Which is better, really?

The skeptics among us have been wondering why congressmen invoking alleged lack of funds scaled down the nationwide computerization plan to exclude their trusted bailiwicks. Why their fallback on selective manual counting?

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AN ALTERNATIVE: A US-based reader, Edgar C. Dizon, emailed us to say that it is feasible to “tabulate votes around the country in an electronic fashion utilizing personal or laptop computers using our custom programming in macros and visual basic.”

Talking from his hands-on experience in many elections in California, Dizon said this could be done “even in remote areas without electricity by means of car battery power, converting the 12V battery current into a 110V A/C D/C power for computers and printers.”

He said the computers, loaded with custom-written software application, could register voters even two weeks before the election to establish database for eligible voters. Data can be transmitted through the Comelec domain by email so information from all over the country can be consolidated.

We think Dizon’s idea won’t sell at the Comelec even if this has been used widely in the US. Reason: His plan is very inexpensive and very simple — while our commissioners are thinking of complicated systems priced in the range of billions.

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DATA HANDLING: Dizon added: “Once the number of voters is established by precinct number, by Barangay, by Town, by Province, these numbers can be used as parameters when actual election is completed.

“It allows the Comelec to compare voter registration against actual votes cast. Each precinct will report a variance, less or greater, and print the variance report if needed.

“Once data is captured in the PC, backup data can be saved on floppy discs or CDROMs (if a CD writer is available). The Comelec email address will be present on every file and protected at all times to assure correct transmission of data.”

The data cannot be edited. But the program provides for a hard copy being printed for the media or any entity legitimately needing a copy. Easy-to-use print buttons one a page enable Comelec registrars to do this.

Dizon said the system provides the most security in transporting data from the polling place to Comelec centers. Paper ballots will remain secured in the precincts for transporting on a later date.

The Comelec or the political parties may want to look into this. The automatic counting machines the Comelec is buying do not address, in fact may even exacerbate, the security problem involved in transporting ballots from the barangays to the towns for counting, and on to Manila via the provincial capitals for consolidation.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 4, 2004)

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