Trust the machine?
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - May 20, 2019 - 12:00am

In 2010 when the country finally went ahead with automated general elections, I attended a briefing conducted for the media by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and Smartmatic-TIM, provider of the precinct count optical scan or PCOS system.

Even my low-tech comprehension could easily digest the process of automated voting: instead of writing down names on a ballot, I would shade circles beside the names, slide the ballot into the machine, wait for confirmation that I had voted, and then go to the Comelec-deputized teachers so I could have my forefinger daubed with indelible ink.

When the polling centers closed, we would wait for the results. No more laborious manual tallying on blackboards or large sheets of paper. No more ballot snatching. No more waiting for days and even weeks for results.

“Trust the machine,” the Comelec chairman at the time, retired Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo, told me.

I trusted Melo. But the machine?

When the briefing folks began talking about algorithms, my mind tuned out. But no problem: I had invited along our newspaper’s tech supervisor, to understand the briefing and vet the system.

When the briefing was over, I asked him if the system was fraud-proof. He told me it would take an enormous amount of effort and resources to tamper with the data processed by the voting machines and alter the results.

So I rested assured… somewhat.

I was even more reassured after Melo faced the media on the night of election day, just hours after the polling precincts closed, to announce with undisguised delight that there was a winner in the presidential race.

Going by the surveys, there was even more jubilation at the time because the winner he announced was Noynoy Aquino. Yellow, now much maligned, was the national color on election day 2010.

In 2013, still using the PCOS machines, the midterm referendum on the second Aquino presidency was a resounding affirmation, with nine of the 12 Senate seats going to Team PNoy administration coalition candidates. There’s a lesson here for the current administration.

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Did I trust the PCOS machine in 2010? I trusted the Comelec chief, even after 60 voting machines in Rizal province went missing and were later found at the home of a PCOS technician. IT experts testified before a congressional hearing that the machines were not used for cheating.

Do I trust the vote counting machines used in the 2016 general elections and in this year’s midterm polls? The VCM is still an optical mark reader, but the new acronym I guess is meant to do away with previous snide references to “hocus-PCOS” in the vote.

The VCM is supposed to be an enhanced version of the PCOS, seven times faster and more powerful, with external memory capacity 512 times larger and random access memory 32 times bigger. For external storage, the compact flash card has been replaced with what Smartmatic described as more reliable secure digital or SD cards.

In 2016, the Comelec reported 801 VCMs and 120 SD cards malfunctioning. This year, 961 of 85,000 VCMs broke down while 1,665 SD cards had glitches.

That makes this year’s polls the worst ever in the history of automated elections, according to Nelson Celis, spokesperson for the Automated Election System Watch. As head of the Philippine Computer Society during the general elections in 2010, Celis attended meetings on the automated polls with the Comelec and other stakeholders.

There were always questions raised about the voting machines and the counting. There were no receipts printed out in 2010, for example, to show people if the machines registered their votes correctly. Celis says the law requires the issuance of the voting receipts, but this was only implemented belatedly.

My guess is the receipts were not issued during the PCOS rollout because Melo’s Comelec did not want people who sold their votes to use the receipt as proof to the vote buyers.

This time, the compromise is for the machines to issue the receipts, but for the voter to leave them in a receptacle guarded by the Comelec-deputized teachers at the polling precinct.

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Celis sees no problem with the receipts. What he’s worried about is an issue he says he raised before Congress and the Comelec, and which remained unresolved by election day. This is the latest tech creature to be introduced into our voting vocabulary: the meet-me-room.

It sounds like a porn site, but it’s actually a term commonly used in the IT sector. Facing “The Chiefs” last week on Cignal TV’s One News, Celis explained to us that using the meet-me-room allowed the data from the VCMs to be intercepted and stored in a parking lot of sorts before reaching the municipal canvassers. Who operated the parking lot? Celis said he didn’t know for sure.

This is not allowed under the automated election law, Celis stressed; the law requires direct transmission from the VCMs to the Comelec’s municipal canvassers. Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez, who spoke to The Chiefs during the same episode, insisted that the VCM data did go directly to the canvassers, and the meet-me-room merely prevented the system from being overwhelmed.

Jimenez has also repeatedly reassured the public that no cheating took place during the seven-hour breakdown of the transparency server, which fed the unofficial results to mass media and the public. The server, Jimenez reiterated to us, was simply swamped.

So do I trust the machine this time? I’m waiting for the formal probe.

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BINAY ON THE VOTERS’ WILL: Former vice president Jejomar Binay took exception to my description that he had fallen out of favor with Makati’s voters.

He told me in a letter: “Let me emphasize that the election result in my district contravenes all pre-election surveys done by independent and reputable survey firms from September 2018 to April 2019 showing my victory by a considerable margin over my closest opponent. It also negates the solid endorsements I received from the INC as well as significant sectoral groups in Makati.”

“Let me assure you that at the proper time, we will reveal facts, data and evidence that would show why the election result does not accurately reflect the true will of the voters of my district.”

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