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Deadlines

In March 2009, the Comelec began the bidding process for automating the May 2010 elections.

In only 14 months, the Comelec managed to acquire the technology, train its personnel for the new process, educate the voters and actually conduct the elections with a minimum of hitches. That is a remarkable feat.

This was an epic logistical exercise. The winning bidder had to rush the production of the hardware to be used for the elections, barely beating the tight deadlines for doing so. Our own logistics companies needed to beef up their personnel and work around the clock to mobilize the election paraphernalia. Tens of thousands of public school teachers needed to be trained in handling state-of-the-art technology.

In order to adjust to the automation process, voting stations needed to be consolidated. Millions of voters needed to be informed not just about the new ballot but also about their new precinct assignments.

The better odds, given the tight schedules, were that the quick transition from a manual to an automated system would be nightmare. Against the odds, the Comelec managed to pull it off. The 2010 elections were generally credible. International observers unanimously praised the conduct of the polls.

It is now March. We have about 14 months to the next elections. No firm decisions have been made about the automation system to be employed for next year’s elections.

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The delay in decision-making appears to be due to influential voices in the Comelec insisting on a return to some sort of hybrid system that combines manual count with electronic tabulation. This implies a backslide from the fully automated system already achieved in the 2010 elections. The law, likewise, commands full automation.

We are not sure about the merits of returning to some partly manual, partly electronic system. Whatever those merits might be, the window for adopting yet another technological system is quickly closing. We are not sure what sort of hardware this proposed hybrid process might require. Therefore, we are not sure if the required technology is available at all in time for the next elections.

If the Comelec decides to use a new technological platform for automation, the bidding for this should start right now if we intend to have a workable system by May next year. Adoption of a new technological platform will again require retraining of our electoral personnel. It will require yet another massive information campaign to inform voters about how to use the new system.

As in 2009, we will ask poll workers to work around the clock to put together the logistical system for elections. We may not be as lucky as we were the first time.

It is not only time that is scarce in this regard. Money is limited as well.

The operating budget of given the Comelec to prepare for the 2013 elections was slashed by 30%. The Comelec requested for P10 billion. Congress gave the poll body only P7 billion. That pretty much precludes consideration of alternative systems for automation.

For better or for worse, we will likely use the same PCOS technology we leased from Smartmatic at 70% of the cost for the 2010 elections. Comelec, under that contract, has the option of acquiring the system for the remaining 30% of the cost of the 82,000 PCOS machines now in storage.

This seems to be the option with the least problems for the Comelec. The machines are stored in warehouses and ready to be redeployed. Our poll workers are by now familiar with the technology and minimal training expenses will be required. The teachers are familiar with the machines and so are the voters.

There seems to be little sense in acquiring a new system at 100% of the cost this late in the game. Not only will this require additional appropriation from Congress, it will have to be demonstrated that the 2010 PCOS system is grossly inferior to whatever new technology might be available.

Up until this time, there is no showing that the old PCOS system suffers from serious flaws. All the recounts done in the course of settling electoral protests demonstrate the accuracy of the PCOS count.

Some charged that the PCOS system could be pre-programmed to favor select candidates. To date, that has not been proven. The high standard of 99.95% accuracy set by the Comelec has been affirmed by the random audit of the 2010 poll results.

The Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the independent citizens’ watchdog, is suitably impressed by the reliability PCOS system. PPCRV chair Henrietta de Villa says her group recommended continued use of the PCOS machines because it is already accepted by our voters.

Comelec spokesman James Jimenez announced that the Comelec Advisory Council likewise recommends reuse of the PCOS system. Unlike other alternative systems, the PCOS system leaves a paper trail that may be audited. This feature is not present in, for instance, the touch-activated voting technologies.

The only objection to the reuse of the PCOS system, it appears, comes from groups peddling their own technologies. They have yet to come up with arguments convincing enough to overcome the cost advantage of reusing the available system.

In the absence of truly compelling arguments to dissuade us from taking the cheaper option of reusing the available machines, the Comelec should firm up its decision on the matter. The earlier we start preparing for the midterm elections, the better off all of us will be.

There is really no reason to go through nerve-wracking suspense that accompanied preparations for the 2010 automated polls.

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