Human or machine?

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Trust the machine, Jose Melo told me. This was in 2009, when the retired Supreme Court justice, at the time chairman of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), was overseeing preparations for the country’s first ever fully automated general elections.

Journalists, myself included, sat through briefings given by the Comelec together with executives of Smartmatic, provider of the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) or vote counting machines, on how the automated vote would be carried out.

The briefings were meant to reassure us that the machines could do a better job than humans handling the manual vote in achieving honest, orderly and peaceful elections (remember HOPE)?

Being low-tech, I dragged along our newspaper’s top techie to listen to the briefings and tell me if we could trust the machine. His short answer was yes. The long answer – which I am trimming here of the technical details that I still can’t understand – was that it would take an enormous amount of time and effort to manipulate the PCOS for poll fraud.

Since I was 100 percent certain that he was not on the payroll of Smartmatic, I felt reassured… a bit. Journalists are chronically skeptical. But whatever doubts I had were dispelled when Jose Melo appeared on TV just a few hours after the polling centers closed in May 2010, and announced with undisguised pride and glee that the country had a new president: Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III.

Lawmakers, of course, were furious at Melo, and insisted on their prehistoric way of canvassing the results and announcing the winner. But there was little doubt that Melo got it right, and Noynoy Aquino was the new president.

Melo, believing he had done his job on poll automation, stepped down in January 2011. But he had spoiled Pinoys long frustrated by the primitive, snail-paced manual vote count of the past. There was no going back to weeks of waiting for the outcome of the presidential race.

And the Comelec did not disappoint. In 2016, we learned of Rodrigo Duterte’s landslide win at past midnight, again just a few hours after the end of voting.

If only for that, we renewed our trust in the Smartmatic-provided vote counting machines. That is, until the count inexplicably slowed down in the race for the vice presidency. We waited an interminably long time for the final results of the cliffhanger VP race.

Suddenly, “hocus-PCOS” was again whispered about, especially when Leni Robredo was declared the winner by a razor-thin margin over second placer Ferdinand Marcos Jr.  

Bongbong Marcos has challenged the results, alleging that he is a victim of poll fraud. With the midterm elections approaching, the protest remains unresolved.

*      *      *

The persistent rumor, reinforced by President Duterte’s recent pronouncements, is that it’s all over but the formal voting in the Supreme Court, and we’ll soon have the late dictator’s only son and namesake installed in the post that is just a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Less certain is whether Duterte will make good his declaration that he will step down if Bongbong Marcos is the vice president and constitutional successor (or Chiz Escudero, although the mention of his name is seen merely as a smokescreen for Du30’s real choice).

Marcos’ protest (and Robredo’s counter-protest), still pending with the notoriously slow Presidential Electoral Tribunal, alleges cheating. He must prove his case through the equivalent of legally tearing apart the vote counting machines and showing how the results were manipulated. Because the issue is highly technical, ordinary folks have tuned out of the dispute.

Robredo’s lawyer Romulo Macalintal has a simpler way of proving automated cheating: present a case where a vote for candidate A was counted by the machine as a vote for candidate B.

To date, Macalintal stresses, not a single such case has been presented.

*      *      *

Macalintal faced “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News channel last week, appearing together with former Biliran congressman Glenn Chong.

In June 2008, Chong’s father survived an ambush in their province that killed two of their bodyguards. Police said politics was the likely motive.

Chong had bested Gerardo Espina Jr. for the lone congressional seat in their province in 2007, breaking the dynastic hold of the clan in Biliran. But the clan bounced back, with Espina’s twin brother Rogelio beating Chong three years later, in the country’s first automated elections. Chong, a lawyer and accountant, insists he was cheated through PCOS manipulation.

The voluble Chong has since been waging what seems like a quixotic battle against poll automation. He is proposing instead a hybrid system in which machine results can be counterchecked against an initial manual tally at the precinct level.

Mindful of the appeal of automation, Chong told us that a manual count can produce results nearly as quickly as machines if the voting is done merely by shading circles beside candidates’ names instead of going back to the practice in the past of writing down the names.

Chong said he was allowed by the Senate to speak on poll fraud during a public inquiry, and even to give a visual presentation, but he thought the time allotted to him was too short. This was probably because Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon wasn’t the only one questioning Chong’s qualifications as a resource person, and asking who he was representing.

 On The Chiefs, Chong emphatically denied that he was working for Bongbong Marcos. He accused the Comelec of selling vote results, promising to present proof – as demanded by Macalintal – at the next Senate hearing, tentatively set in September.

*      *      *

Chong had asked the ombudsman to probe Comelec Commissioner Christian Robert Lim for graft, with the possibility of initiating the poll official’s impeachment, for allegedly favoring Smartmatic-TIM (Total Information Management Corp.).

In the digital age, some countries have tried voting by internet, but there are still quite a number of countries that eschew electronic voting. A hybrid system appears to work for several countries.

In our case, the issue boils down to which one can be trusted more to count votes in Philippine elections: human or machine?

It’s an indictment of our society that there is no easy answer.





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