FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Almost as certain as the sun rises, some conspiracy theory comes up about the integrity of our elections every time a major decision about the purchase of expensive technology looms.

The time has come for the Commission on Elections to make a decision about the electronic hardware used for rapidly counting our votes. As always, numerous conspiracy theorists circulate. All of them suggest new equipment should be bought and new suppliers sought.

We all know what animates these conspiracy theories – although it is rarely said in polite company.

Yesterday, news broke that the Comelec decided to exclude Smartmatic from participating in future bidding for electronic voting technologies. The news broke because of a Viber post from Comelec Chairman George Garcia.

If the electronic voting technology we have in use is completely replaced, this will require a very large appropriation. That may be bad news for taxpayers, but it is certainly good news for rival merchants and their friends in high places.

Over the past months, a number of so-called “experts” in electronic voting systems have been stumping against what they say are flaws in the Smartmatic technology we use. They have so far failed to prove that a single vote was anomalous. If there were any serious flaws in the counting of votes in previous elections, then the very legitimacy of the current administration could come into question.

Critics of Smartmatic claim that various cases have been filed in the US against Smartmatic. The technology company however says that not a single case against them exists – in the US or elsewhere. The claim peddled by these critics is clearly disinformation easily refuted by a Google search.

Most of the arguments against the current automated vote counting system we use are either patently false or regurgitated rumor. It is amazing how critics of this counting system actually impress even some of our election commissioners.

An 11-page petition was filed with the Comelec by a group led by former communications technology undersecretary Eliseo Rio and former poll commissioner Augusto Lagman. Both have been actively campaigning against the use of Smartmatic technology.

Lagman, in particular, advocates a shift to a hybrid method for counting the votes involving manual count at the precinct level. But cheating at the precinct level is precisely the reason we decided to completely automate the process.

After we automated our elections, the only recourse of unscrupulous candidates to cheat was to buy votes. Tampering with the canvass was made impossible by digital technology and the speed of counting this enabled.

This is the reason why the price for buying votes soared magically in the past few electoral cycles. There are some localities where votes are bought, according to anecdotal information, for as much as P20,000. Not surprisingly, many NCR-based workers insist on going home to their provinces to vote.

The persistent campaign to discredit the automated elections began after the last presidential elections. Some voices were heard wondering aloud why it took only a few hours to tally millions of votes. But this is precisely the goal of automating elections and incorporating digital technologies: to tally the votes in nearly real-time.

To achieve real-time tallying of the votes, our present automated elections system simply has to upgrade its servers some more. New chip technologies used by global media companies are able to process millions of requests simultaneously.

How long does it take to send an email? Anyone with some working knowledge of computers knows how fast numbers, even in their millions, can be processed by competent servers. We are now talking of speeds in milliseconds or even nanoseconds.

Speed in counting remains the best way to combat electoral fraud. To this end, deployment of digital technologies remains the most effective means.

Let us not go back to our old and medieval system of counting where human error happens at every stage of this primitive paper-based system. Sometimes the errors are intentional.

Until the Comelec comes up with a full explanation about how it arrived at the decision to ban Smartmatic from the procurement process, we will have to assume that the commissioners (to whom we entrust the fate of our electoral democracy) based their move entirely on the complaint filed by Rio and company.

If they did, that would be a disappointment. The Rio complaint is flimsy. It offers no solid proof of fraud. It is speculative. Worse, it is anchored on the totally wrong assertion of indictments against Smartmatic filed elsewhere. In the Age of Google, that false assertion could have been easily debunked.

We can presume that Smartmatic will exhaust all legal means to have the Comelec ban lifted. In which case, the Comelec will indeed have to make a full public accounting of its harsh (and apparently hasty) decision.

It is to the public interest that participation in bidding for our automated vote counting system be as broad as possible. That will enable our election agency to choose from among the best, and not just from the ranks of bidders left over after a purge.

It simply does not seem right that the Comelec cuts out the previous supplier, a global leader in automated elections technology, for some flimsy accusation against it. That narrows the field of competition drastically – and to our people’s disadvantage.

Let us not allow this crucial bidding process to be merely a trial by intrigue. As things stand, this is how this thing is turning out to be.

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