Why fix it when it ain’t broke

HIDDEN AGENDA - The Philippine Star

They simply won’t give up.

They failed in 2010. And again in 2012. And now they are raising the same issues all over again, hoping to get a different result in 2016.

These people, self-styled electoral reform activities Gus Lagman and Nelson Celis, are once again trying to discredit the Philippine automated election system in the hope that the Commission on Elections will ditch automation.

As heads of interlocking lobby groups AES Watch and TrasparentElections.org.ph, Lagman and Celis have started a media offensive to stop Comelec from using the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines driven by the AES technology in the next national polls.

It will be recalled that Comelec decided in August to use this same optical mark reader (OMR) apparatus in 2016, in step with the “mixed technologies” formula endorsed by the Comelec Advisory Council (CAC).

These “lobbyists,” who failed to advance their lost cause in 2010 and 2013, are making a last-ditch attempt to either stop AES/PCOS provider Smartmatic from joining the upcoming public bidding for the extra OMR machines, or better yet, arm-twist Comelec into dumping the AES/PCOS setup altogether. 

Lagman, Celis and kind have actually been lobbying before the 2010 polls for the rival Open Election System (OES), which is a mongrel setup combining manual precinct-level vote counting with semi-automated or automated provincial/city and national canvassing, in complete disregard of the intent and spirit of Republic Act no. 9369 or the Poll Computerization Law.

There is neither fresh evidence nor new basis to warrant a different Comelec response this time around. In fact, Comelec has dismissed all election-related protests due to failure of losing candidates to show proof of any discrepancy between the PCOS-tallied votes and the post-election recounted votes in the contested areas.

The only thing new though is the move by the Government Watch, chaired by Raul Concepcion, to squander its solid reputation as a credible consumer advocacy group in the local business community when it echoed the call for Comelec to dump the PCOS machines in favor of a new system, purportedly to ensure a more transparent elections in 2016.  

In Resolution No. 2014-002 dated August 13, 2014, the CAC endorsed the re-use of the existing OMR technology as the primary technology or voting system because of the “acceptability of the OMR technology with paper-based ballots by the electorate and the BEIs (Board of Election Inspectors) as they have been exposed to this technology, thus minimal voters’ education is required.”

But because the existing machines will not be sufficient to accommodate the entire voting population, the CAC cited the need to acquire more machines to fill the gap and recommended public bidding for the entry of other OMR technology providers for this requirement.

This CAC resolution was signed by its chairperson, Science and Technology undersecretary Louis Napoleon Casambre, and its seven members, namely, Alberto Muyot of the Department of Education (DepEd); Raymundo Liboro of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST); Rommel Feria of the University of the Philippines (UP); George Kintanar of the Chief Information Officers Forum Foundation Inc. (CIOFF); Angel Averia Jr. of the Philippine Computer Emergency Response Team (PhCERT); Rona Ann Caritos of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE); and John Paul Vergara of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV).

 The go-signal by Comelec and CAC for the “old and new” mix-use formula, which involves harnessing the twice-used PCOS machines, purchasing additional ones to cope with the higher number of voters, and pilot-testing the more advanced but costly Direct Electronic Recording (DRE) technology in urban centers, was the most logical course of action for the 2016 balloting.

First justification is budgetary constraints. In case it dumps PCOS/AES, Comelec will need a whopping P55 billion to buy about 800,000 DRE machines using the touch screen mode for the country’s 80,000 precincts nationwide.

This will never happen, considering that the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) slashed to just P10.3 billion the P16-billion budget that the Comelec had asked for. With P10.3 billion, the Commission will use P6.9 billion to use/upgrade the existing 80,000 PCOS units and buy 6,000 new ones to cover the larger voters’ list and planned pilot DRE program, and have P3.4 billion left for its other poll-related projected and activities for the next computerized electoral exercise come 2016.

 But a better justification is that the electorate has nothing to worry about the PCOS/AES technology supplied by Smartmatic in 2010 and 2013, given that most Filipino voters themselves were satisfied with, and lauded the results of, these exercises as reflected in the tracking and exit polls of prominent pollsters Social Weather Stations (SWS), Pulse Asia and StratPolls. These was also a high level of international acclaim for the Philippine polls as shown by the swift congratulatory messages from leaders across the globe.

The US-based Carter Center, whose track record include at least 80 election observation missions in 30 countries over the past two decades, lauded the Comelec and the other parties responsible for the  clean and orderly conduct of the elections, which, it concluded,  was “marked by relatively high public confidence and trust in the use of the OMR technology.”

This US mission also noted that while concerns were raised by civil society groups and “political actors” about the automated election system dominated public discourse, “the Carter Center found little evidence of their impact on public confidence on election day.”

 So why fix the PCOS/AES system when it ain’t broke?

Meanwhile, advocacy group Democracy Watch has noted in a position paper the great strides that the Philippines has achieved in the field of electoral balloting via the use of PCOS/AES in the country’s first two computerized elections.

Democracy Watch has noted that with the Comelec’s use of PCOS machines in 2010 and 2013, “no valid and credible challenge has been made against the outcome of the elections in contrast to what happened in the 2004 presidential elections when automation was not yet deployed. In fact, the credibility of the automated elections was lauded by international observers and gave the current administration a clear mandate to govern.”

It said it was “impractical” to replace the PCOS machines and spend billions of pesos on acquiring a completely new system, considering that “the reported use of the same PCOS machines in other countries shows that with proper storage and maintenance, a useful life span of 10-20 years is normal.”

Democracy Watch stressed that the existing PCOS technology in the Comelec’s inventory is the same one used in the US, Brazil, Venezuela, Belgium and India.

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