POSTSCRIPT / August 16 2015 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Opinion Columnist

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Brillantes’ detractors can now run after him

WITH just 266 days to Election Day, the most sensible thing for the Commission on Elections and everybody else to do is focus on moving forward to ensure clean and credible counting of the votes on May 9, 2016.

With a presumption of regularity on collegial acts of the Comelec, including its leasing of 93,977 vote-counting machines, nobody should be allowed to derail frivolously the election timetable set by law and good practice.

We have seen how dilatory moves have prevented the poll body from refurbishing in time for the next elections the 82,000 Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines – whose remaining usable life is around 12 more years with proper maintenance — now lying idle in a bodega in Laguna.

We cannot blame skeptics in suspecting that the foot-dragging was intentional, with a business angle to it.

We could have saved easily P2 billion had the Comelec attended to the early repair and upgrading of the PCOS machines most of which were used only for two days – once in 2010 and another day in 2013.

But some commissioners in the previous Comelec chaired by Sixto Brillantes Jr. apparently wanted to have more money moving around till his last day in office.

Now if anybody wants to go after well-placed people who had collected commissions on the side – while compromising the electoral process — he could pursue that action separately without disrupting the work program of the Comelec under new chair Andres Bautista.

I am one of those who believe that the Brillantes Comelec had resorted to shortcuts – described by some as violations of the Automated Election System law – for pecuniary, political or whatever reason. And I won’t be surprised if smart operators made millions in the process.

The crooks must be made to pay heavily for that. However, their prosecution should be pursued separately so we do not distract the Comelec from its tight election timeline.

Let us give the poll body under a new management a chance to make up for its institutional and individual sins – and focus on the job at hand.

Can OMR hide shady past of old PCOS?

THE NEW PCOS machines, renamed Optical Mark Readers (OMR) to hide their shady past, were supplied by the Smartmatic-Total Information Management joint venture for the total price of P7.9 billion under two contracts for 23,000 and 70,977 units.

Announcing the deal, Bautista said: “After exhaustive consultation with stakeholders and with due consideration of the current circumstances, particularly issues relating to cost, timeliness and technical risk, the commission decided (to lease) all new 93,977 machines.”

Under the generic PCOS and OMR names, the machines are practically the same in their basic technology. The voter will not be able to distinguish a PCOS from an OMR since they look the same, take the same ballot and function the same way.

It was just that some PR people thought that dropping the PCOS tag might help hide their past related to poll fraud. But no sooner had their new alias was disclosed than the usual naughty kibitzers started to call them “Ok Mar Roxas” (OMR) machines, whatever that implies.

Although the upgraded OMRs are cheaper by some P1,000 each, they have higher encryption and security features (256 bit encryption vs the old PCOS’ 128 bit encryption). The OMR’s digital signature uses 2048 bit asymmetrical keys vs the PCOS’ 1028 bit.

The OMR has scanning lens self-check, enabling it to detect and warn of any “digital lines” as experienced in a few instances in 2013 of ballots’ readability being affected by dirt, ink and other factors.

Smartmatic said the OMR’s improved processing capacity allows it to perform faster, thus reducing risk of data corruption and the disruption of the voting. It can back up a ballot image in less than one minute.

Correct mistakes observed in past elections

LIKE a hammer, a PCOS or OMR or whatever the voting machine is called, is neutral as a tool. Its beneficial use depends largely on the user. It could be harmful if not programmed and used properly.

The law mandating automated elections called for the best system that the Congress could legislate at the time. But there remain many areas needing improvement.

After 2010, the Comelec in fact requested and implemented around 40 changes or enhancements. With many complaints having been raised after the 2013 elections, the Comelec should consider more refinements and a review of the software.

A few of the tougher problems may require rush legislation, but many of them need mere political will on the part of the Comelec.

For instance, there was a howl over the Brillantes Comelec’s setting aside by mere resolution several safeguards mandated in the AES law. Such flouting of the law should not go unpunished, with notice to the Bautista Comelec not to repeat the infraction.

One safeguard is for the members of the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) to digitally sign the election returns to authenticate them as correct and official.

Since the Comelec, again by resolution, set aside this requirement of law, even the validity of past national elections may have been put in question.

There was also the failure of the Comelec to enforce another requirement for the early review by specified parties, including the opposition, of the source code of the PCOS (now OMR) machines. The code is the program or set of instructions that the machine follows.

While there is still time, the Bautista Comelec should see to it that that crucial safeguard involving the source code is observed.

Through consultations, a way should also be found to prevent anybody with access and technical capability to tamper with the program from selling his services to those intending to cheat.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 16, 2015)

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