FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas () - May 23, 2009 - 12:00am

Early this year, the Nielsen Global Online Survey ranked the Philippines number one among the most “info-tech” nation in the world. Of the 52 countries surveyed, only five from the Asia-Pacific region made it to the top 10 list, with the Philippines taking pole position. Singapore, one of the most wired countries in the world, came in second place; while Australia, Hong Kong, and New Zealand were ranked at fourth, eighth and tenth positions respectively.

This makes the Philippines the only “emerging nation” on the roster. Interestingly enough, as if we did not know it already, the survey noted that a large percentage of the Philippine population is tech-savvy, showing that access to technology is not restricted to the elite.

What does this say about us as a people?

To a certain extent it means that we are hungry for information and entertainment. More significantly, it indicates that we Filipinos are intelligent, adept and perceptive. The kind of people who like to stay well-informed and up to date.

Personally, the result of that survey comes as a pleasant surprise to me. The only fly-in-ointment issue that somehow bugs me, though, is that, with such a technology-oriented population, how come we still have not adapted this astounding capability into our electoral system? As of this writing the Commission on Elections (Comelec) still has not come around to choosing the group that will be entrusted with the historic task of automating our election.

Doesn’t such a nation, the most info-tech capable country in the world, deserve a credible, automated voting system? Is it not imperative to safeguard the Filipinos’ vote against human error and intentional manipulation? The Philippines needs to employ the relevant technology to ensure transparency in our electoral process and produce totally accurate election results.

As of this writing, the Comelec is still hard pressed to announce the winning bidder for the automation of the 2010 polls. The latest news is that after sifting through the motions for reconsideration filed by the disqualified groups, the Special Bids and Awards Committee (SBAC) headed by Ferdinand Rafanan has finally come up with four names - the Smartmatic/Total Information Management, Indra Sistems S.A., Gilat Satellite Network/FF Cruz & Co., and Es&S/AMA Group of Companies.

 Rafanan certainly has his work cut out for him; his SBAC needs to stringently question and challenge the capability of the bidders to efficiently undertake this project. While the Comelec and Smartmatic reportedly aced the job in automating the 2008 ARMM polls, deploying, operating and tracking the performance of some 82,500 voting machines over 32,000 localities across the nation is a totally different ballgame. With barely 12 months to go until the 2010 elections, can they really pull it off?

This columnist and an eager audience had the opportunity to learn how near Comelec is towards its goal of having automated elections in May 2010 during the general membership meeting of the Philippine Constitution Association. The guest speaker, Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, expressed what Comelec Chairman Jose Melo has been saying all along – there is time for full automation despite the initial disqualification of bidders to provide the automated machines for the 2010 elections. In effect, Comelec has junked calls to either consider partial automation or to use the machines purchased for the 2004 elections.

Over a cup of coffee after the meeting, Sarmiento told this columnist that the Open Election System (OES), which a concerned group has been strongly advocating, combines manual election in the precinct level and automation in the canvassing and transmission of election results. This hybrid type of election system “does not put a stop to human intervention and irregularities in the precinct level like the three m’s (misreading of names in the ballots, misappreciation of what is written in the ballots, misbehavior of some members of the Board of Election Inspectors who play favorites), the three b’s (ballot switching, ballot snatching, ballot stuffing, when ballot boxes are in the precincts or when they are transported from precincts to municipal or city halls), and two o’s (overtired, overwork BFI and watchers).”

The US presidential elections are highly computerized, so why did the counting of ballots in Florida, in the 2000 presidential race, shift from automation to manual? Could this not happen in the Philippines in 2010? Sarmiento said, “In Florida, George W. Bush led Al Gore by 537 votes out of six million votes cast. Gore asked for a recount of ballots by hand in four counties where his support was believed to be strong. Incompletely punched ballots that could not be counted by punch card machines were attributed to voter error. The recount of ballots in Florida created a debate about the reliability of punch card ballots.”

But that will not happen in the Philippines’ May 10, 2010 election, he said. “The automated election system that will be used in the Philippines is the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) which is different from punch card ballot machines. The voter using PCOS machines will shade the oval or circle opposite the name of his chosen candidate and thereafter personally feed the paper ballot into the machine that will record, scan and photograph said ballot. The ballot will then be deposited by the machine into a transparent ballot box.

“After the voting-machine fiasco in Florida,” Sarmiento said, “the voting system now in that state is Optical Scan and Direct Recording Electronic.”

For sure the Comelec will be doubly meticulous in the final screening before awarding this landmark project to any of the bidders. The intelligent, adept and perceptive – and again – tech-savvy Filipino people deserve an untainted, credible voting system.

As Commissioner Sarmiento puts it, “The success of elections and strength of democracy rests in three pillars: good governance, enlightened electorate and vigilant civil society, and courage and hope against despair and fear of the unknown.”

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Philconsa is known for sponsoring forums on vital national issues, hence its taking up of automation of elections at its general membership meeting last Tuesday. Actively participating in the meeting were Conrado F. Estrella, chairman of the board, Manuel M. Lazaro, president; Carmencita T. Aguilar, secretary general; Froilan M. Bacungan, EVP; Gen. Jaime C. Echevarria, VP for military affairs; Justice Oswaldo D. Agcaoili, VP for constitutional reforms; Dean Amado D. Valdez, VP for academic affairs, and Nelia T. Gonzalez, governor and treasurer.

Inducted as new Philconsa members were Comelec Commissioners Armando C. Velasco and Elias R. Yusoph; Southern Philippines Development Authority Chairman Saeed A. Daof; lawyers Teofilo S. Pilando Jr., Prudente M. Soller Jr. and Ariel B. Tubayan, and Rev. Fr. Emmanuel C. Panayo and Rizalino K. Wales.

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