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Business

VCM, VCM, VCM

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

Credits go to Mel Tiangco, seasoned television newscaster and host, who broadcast her frustration over the Commission on Elections’ malfunctioning vote counting machines (VCMs) during the live news coverage of the 2022 election by the GMA Network.

Tiangco was apparently reacting to the numerous reports by assigned network team members since the time polls opened at 6 a.m. of VCMs that jammed or rejected ballots, refused to scan vote sheets or had malfunctioning printers.

As a result, Tiangco that day trended on Twitter, affirming the many frustrations of voters who were at the receiving end of the problematic VCMs. Many had to wait in line to have the machines fixed. Those who had already finished shading the ballots but couldn’t complete the next steps were torn between leaving their accomplished ballots in the polling rooms for teachers to finish the process, or simply just wait.

By mid morning of May 9, Comelec Commissioner George Garcia had disclosed that close to 1,900 VCMs were reportedly problematic, a figure that is about double of the cases monitored in the previous elections years of 2016 and 2019.

Hours before polling closed, Garcia pronounced 168 VCMs and 176 SD cards to be defective, with 44 machines and 81 cards replaced. While the defective machines represented only 0.15 percent of the 107,345 machines used during the day, the anxiety generated cannot be measured.

Election irregularities

Ever since the Philippines used VCMs to speed up the election vote count and transmission (the first time on a pilot test basis during the 2008 Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao general elections, and on a nationwide basis in the succeeding elections in 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and this year), automated voting has gained a decent amount of acceptance.

Problematic VCMs, in fact, are a small part of reported voting irregularities. More widespread and difficult to monitor and stop are the practices of vote buying, not only at the individual voter level, but even including government officials from the barangays up to higher levels.

Receiving money to attend a campaign rally is no longer regarded as an affront to one’s dignity. Dare we accuse millions of voters who have willingly boarded buses, received meal stubs and a few peso bills to be physically present during campaign sorties, and later to vote for the candidate to be morally weak?

Party allegiances are also no longer a matter of principle, but of expediencies. It has become so easy to put up a new party, to strike coalitions or declare breakaway factions. Definitely, in Philippine politics, blood is thicker than water, where having two or more family members in government is desirable and contingent.

Even Comelec’s integrity has been frayed. Who can forget the infamous Hello Garci tape that caught no less than the country’s chief executive talking about election results with the Comelec head? Who believes that the Comelec can still be independent and committed to deliver the real will of the people, especially when a clear verdict in the Hello Garci scandal was never handed down?

Defective machines

For the 2025 general elections, Comelec is campaigning on the need to retire all of the current voting machines, now numbering about 10,000 units, used in the past three voting exercises. These are made to work only once every three years, and when done with what they had been designed to do, are sent to storage in a bodega rented by the Comelec.

The government has already spent tens of billions of taxpayers’ money to automate Philippine elections. In the 2010 and 2013 general elections, Comelec used precinct count optical scans or PCOS supplied by the London-based Smartmatic.

Because of widespread problems, dubbed as a technology and political disaster by the poll watchdog AES Watch, Comelec decided to change from the PCOS system to the current VCMs, first leasing the machines from Smartmatic, then outright buying them.

In use for less than 10 years, Comele now say that the VCMs have entered obsolescence, hence the need to replace them with new ones. If you divide the cost of using automated machines, including the fee for validating its security of operations, with the number of Filipino votes, it boils down to about P60 per person.

That sounds like an acceptable price, but only if the integrity of elections were assured, and those darn machines would deliver respectable performance on that designated one day that comes every three years.

Next-gen voting technology

Before the next general elections, Comelec needs to put in far better effort at improving our automated election system. New technology has certainly made possible other options, including electronic voting, which was accepted and used in the US during its last elections at a time when the pandemic was in a surge.

Where possible, the Philippines should also explore paperless voting utilizing smartphones. Studies are still devoted to Internet-based voting, and while there is little data to support its ability to bring more citizens to exercise their right to vote, its integrity to deliver the right vote has generally been improved.

Studies have even shown that the next-gen voting technologies will drastically reduce the amount that governments need to set aside to conduct a credible election.

If it’s any consolation to our media friends who were agitated by the malfunctioning vote machines last Monday, they will likely not have to be bothered by VCMs in future. Let’s hope that Comelec will do a better job.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at [email protected]. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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