POSTSCRIPT / September 15, 2009 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Thoughts on automated cheating, election failure

NIGHTMARE: Those having nightmares about possible automated cheating and failure of election in May 2010 may want to pore over our technical information on the matter.

No need to define “cheating” as all Filipinos of voting age know what this fact of life — the usurping of the popular will — means.

“Failure of election” means the failure to produce valid poll results, such as ending up with no proclaimed winners for president, vice president, new senators and congressmen — with nobody outside the bureaucracy to run the government by June 30, 2010.

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LANDSCAPE: Now, survey the landscape for this first nationwide automated election under the Commission on Elections and its technical partner, Smartmatic-TIM.

They are still cleaning the old registry and listing up new and returning voters, but the rough estimate is that there will be more than 40 million ready to cast their vote on May 10, 2010.

These voters in 80 provinces and 1,631 cities and towns will be distributed to 320, 415 polling precincts. Each precinct, usually set up in schools and other public places, will have around 200 voters.

But under the P7.2-billion Comelec-Smartmatic contract, the supplier will deliver only 82,200 automated counting machines to serve voters flocking to 320,415 precincts.

With this logistical limitation, Comelec will group the precincts into clusters of about four or five precincts, each cluster served by one vote-counting machine.

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CLUSTER ISSUES: The clustering poses a management problem. How will the 1,000 or so voters from various precincts be directed to the cluster-precinct that has the only counting machine?

If the voters have to be transferred, will they walk under guard or be transported (and sales-talked in transit)? By whom?

Or will the voters’ accomplished ballots be taken from them at their original precinct and taken to the counting machine in the cluster precinct? Or will the voters walk with their ballots to cast them in the cluster with a counting machine?

What if there is bad weather or a milling crowd or any natural or man-made phenomenon that will make ballot-transfer risky, or a diverting of voters to another precinct inadvisable?

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TIME & MOTION: One decision made by Comelec to mitigate the time-and-motion problem is to stretch the old voting time of 7 a.m.–3 p.m. to 7 a.m.–6 p.m., for a total of 11 hours.

Where voters have gone through an orientation, practiced the new procedure and are already lined up with marking pens ready and the election staff and the machine are working with tip-top efficiency, it might take each voter five minutes to accomplish the unusually long, two-sided ballot and insert it into the counting machine.

This assumes that the 1,000 voters (per cluster) come in a non-stop stream poised to just vote and cast their ballot and nobody (including the election inspectors) takes time out for lunch or merienda, and the machines work as desired.

I don’t know if there’s something wrong with my calculator, but that procession requires more than 80 hours, not 11 hours.

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IMPERSONAL MODE: In some parts of the Philippines, there are many voters who have not seen even a typewriter, much less used a computer.

In the name of automation, they now have to deal with a new-fangled machine that will swallow their long ballot, calculate a score and shoot the results to outer space, thence to the municipal, provincial and national canvassing centers. Wow!!

Even in the filling out of Lotto bet cards and in the similar shade-the-circle answering mode in college admission tests, many lottery and test cards still get invalidated. Will the computerized voting procedure be any easier?

Filipinos, ever the usisero type, can no longer witness the reading of the ballots, the marking of score lines on the blackboard or Manila paper, and going home in the evening knowing who had won in their precinct.

How will this impersonal automated process impress the voter? Will it engender greater faith in the electoral system?

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TROUBLE SHOOTING: The counting gadget looks more like a photocopying machine. Instead of a keyboard like one sees with a regular computer, it has a touchscreen where instructions are keyed in from a set menu.

The Board of Election Inspectors must train to operate it. Two members will be given separate passwords unique to the machine that they must input one after the other to make it perform predefined tasks. Who else might know the passwords?

In the countryside, the machines will be plagued by heat, humidity, dust, occasional rain, and untrained (sometimes malicious) hands. In some places there will be lack of electricity and transmission signals.

The BEI members are not prepared to troubleshoot technical problems. Smartmatic cannot assign one technician per machine. What happens when there is hardware or software trouble, or a transmission glitch — which can pop up even in an ideal environment?

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CARD SWITCHING: The machine has no hard disk as in regular computers. Instead, it uses two memory cards where the election data is saved and from which the results are transmitted electronically to the local and national terminals (Congress and Comelec).

It is disturbing that the memory cards are not imbedded in the motherboard or permanently installed in the machines. They can be inserted and ejected by whoever knows the passwords.

What if an unseen hand replaces the memory card (as in ballot box switching in the bad old days) with a prepared card and then transmits spurious results for the local and national canvass?

(Oops, there is no more space.)

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 15, 2009)

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