FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - March 7, 2019 - 12:00am

For better or for worse, we are wedded to automated elections. Our own laws command it.

In actuality, automated electoral systems are really necessary only for 26 public offices elected at large: the president, the vice-president and 24 senators. Filipinos are fixed on the idea of directly electing the president and the vice-president and electing at large all the senators.

If we shift to a decentralized system of elections, we might be able to junk the automated systems we paid so much for. But the possibility of decentralizing elections, as is done in India where the decision of hundreds of millions of voters is known just hours after the close of polls even if votes are manually counted, is not even on the horizon.

As much as we are wedded to automated elections, we are also wedded to Smartmatic. We purchased their system. We have leased, and will probably purchase, the additional counting machines we needed because of the increasing number of our voters.

So much controversy has been generated by the use of these counting machines – mainly by losing candidates who blame the automated system.

None of the charges of tampered counting, however, prospered. Until the results of an elections are reversed based on findings of anomaly in the counting system, all the speculation of automated tampering remains in the realm of urban legend.

The random manual audits done by the Philippine Statistics Authority in previous elections show that automated count and the election returns match 99.96 percent of the time. The remaining 0.04 percent is entirely attributable to human error.

The swift transmission of the results, on the other hand, made tampering of the results through the old “dagdag-bawas” methods obsolete. Election workers are no longer the subjects of coercion, intimidation and bribery. Casualties among election workers are now rare, even as election related killings seem on the rise.

Smartmatic’s technology is now used in over ten countries including the Philippines, the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway and Belgium. The company continues to spend more on research and development than any of its competitors. It is the only company with the capability to automate every phase of the electoral process from biometric registration of voters to the posting of results.

Recently, Denmark purchased Smartmatic technology for its upcoming elections later this year. Denmark is among the least corrupt countries in the world and its electoral authority must have applied the strictest procurement procedures in contracting the services of the Venezuelan company.

More interesting, Norway recently used Smartmatic’s newest technological breakthrough in its recent referendum. The upgraded system used blockchain technology that did not require servers to do the automated count. With this new technology, it should be possible to enable voters to vote from the comfort of their homes in the next elections.

Los Angeles County in California, for its part, used Smartmatic’s customizable Voting System for All People (VSAP) technology to better serve the locality’s highly diverse population.

Those who continue to suspect tampering of election results is still possible using the computer servers should demand an upgrade to the system using blockchain and other such innovation developed by the company.

Fast track

Happily, presidential adviser for information technology RJ Jacinto now explicitly concedes to the DICT’s policy to allow all comers to invest in building the 51,000 telecommunications towers we need to be in place in just two years. There is now consensus on what was, last year, a nagging policy issue.

With this newfound policy consensus, the DICT, the three telcos and at least 12 tower-building companies will act in concert to close this crucial infrastructure gap. The demand for faster, cheaper and more efficient data transmission is growing exponentially. The demand will become more intensive as new gadgets and 5G-capable mobile technologies become available.

Our existing infra is behind the curve in meeting this demand. Yesterday’s towers simply cannot meet tomorrow’s requirements.

Jacinto earlier wanted only two tower providers accredited to undertake the construction of at least 51,000 towers. Even if we grant that two tower providers have the technology to undertake the challenging task, each would need tens of billions of pesos in available capital to get the job done. That is financially unimaginable.

Jacinto may have conceded to DICT Acting Secretary Eliseo Rio’s vastly superior policy of opening the market to all comers, but the controversy he generated provoked such a strong reaction that will not easily go away.

For instance, a group called Filipino League of Advocates for Good Governance (FLAG) filed a complaint against the presidential adviser a few months ago. The complaint alleges that the strange two-tower provider policy option pushed by Jacinto is marred by conflict of interest.

The complainants point out that the Rajah Broadcasting Network, belonging to the RJ Group of Companies, has radio towers that may be converted or collocated with cell towers. The radio frequencies used by this network are part of the spectrum much needed by the telcos.

Another possible conflict of interest concerns Jacinto’s steel manufacturing business. The massive demand for cell towers will reflect in a strong demand for fabricated steel.

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