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The Manila Times - Voters generally unconcerned about integrity of election process

News & Interviews
23 January 2019

By Gus Lagman | The Manila Times

VOTERS are generally more concerned about who will win an election than whether the election process can be trusted or not. Nothing very wrong with that; in fact, it’s a natural thing. Except that their complacency about the process can embolden the election cheats into doing their evil acts.

Quite naturally, therefore, very few voters became aware of the problems that surrounded the conduct of the past three elections — 2010, 2013 and 2016. Those were the years when the Commission on Elections (Comelec) automated our elections, employing the precinct count optical scan, or PCOS (oh, they’ve renamed it VCM, or vote counting machine, probably because of the bad name that PCOS has earned for itself).

While the objective of speed was somehow attained, there were questions regarding the accuracy of the results and the absence of transparency in the system used.

IT practitioners were not happy about the implementation of automated elections in those three election years for the reason that the Smartmatic solution was far from being suitable as an automated election system, and they knew it to have been non-compliant with some legal provisions, as well as some bidding specifications.

First of all, the optical mark recognition (OMR), like the direct recording electronic (DRE) system, is not a good automation system for elections because nobody witnesses the counting of the ballots at the precincts. It’s the machines and their software that do the counting … inside a “black box,” which counting, voters do not see. In effect, the voters are being asked to trust both the system and the implementers — the latter, referring to the Comelec and Smartmatic, the service/machine provider in the last three elections. It might be acceptable in countries with no history of election cheating, but sad to say, not so in the Philippines.

Still, there are many countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, and Ireland — where election cheating is virtually unheard of — which reverted to manual precinct-counting for this very reason. Lack of transparency.

I have repeated so many times in the past, but thus far, still ignored by the election authorities, that when precinct-counting is automated, transparency, a requirement in the law, RA 9369, is lost. Without transparency, rigging the results of elections becomes much easier. And because it’s automated, implementation of cheating, while unwieldy when it was manual, is facilitated.

Unfortunately, a little PR campaign launched by either or both the implementers and the service/machine provider, can easily camouflage the defects of the system. That, plus the voting public’s fascination with automation, made acceptance — in some sectors, even adulation — of the system an almost natural consequence.

But people who are IT-savvy know better … and they are unimpressed with the system. Those who have experience in systems design and implementation of big projects are even more disappointed. And rightly so.

If this very first step in the counting/consolidation process is not transparent to the voting public, then this step and all succeeding ones could simply not be trusted. It is for this reason that the source code review and the random manual audit were made requirements by the election automation law (RA 9369). On the other hand, these safeguards by themselves, will not ensure 100 percent accuracy of the results either. Far from it.

The experience in the past three elections using PCOS revealed several points of non-compliance by the system and by the service provider. Consider the following issues of non-compliance with the bidding specifications:

1. PCOS did not meet the required accuracy level of 99.995 percent.

2. PCOS did not recognize check marks and X-marks as votes.

3. Only ovals marked at least 25 percent were recognized as votes (this could have disenfranchised many votes). And non-compliance with election laws.

4. Unsatisfactory implementation of “source code review.”

5. Non-compliant with the digital signature requirement of the law.

6. No Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT); VVPAT was implemented in 2016 but lacked the markings — date of the elections, date and time stamp of VVPAT, and the clustered precinct number.

7. Existence of an intermediary ervers which was only revealed after the elections.

8. Varying time stamps on ERs in 2010.

9. Unsecured communication port.

Even the compensating controls recommended by the international certification body, Systems Lab Inc. (SLI), was not complied with.

Why Comelec has not filed any case against Smartmatic for any, or all, of the above reasons (Smartmatic would usually argue that Comelec allowed them the non-compliance), and worse, why it kept on awarding the latter more billion-peso contracts, are serious anomalies that many find extremely puzzling.