Tuesday, 30 June 2009

What’s the worry over automated elections?

Manila Bulletin

MANILA, June 24 (Reuters) — The Philippines’ Commission on Elections (Comelec) is signing a $150-million deal with a Barbados-based company this week to automate balloting at the presidential polls next year, hoping to avoid fraud and speed up results.

About 50 million Filipinos are choosing a president, vice president, nearly 300 members of the two-chamber legislature and more than 17,000 local government officials through the as yet-untested automated system.

Lawmakers, political groups and analysts have cast doubts over the automated process. Many fear chaos due to potential machine breakdowns and delays in result transmission, which could lead to a failed election and political limbo.

Such scenarios are making local financial markets nervous.

Here are some questions and answers about the plan to automate the vote count in the Philippines.

Why automate the elections?

Hounded by allegations of poll fraud and manipulation of vote counts in past elections, the Philippines has embarked on a major project to automate voting, using machines that can scan ballots, print and transmit results that could declare winners within two hours at the local level and about 36 hours at the national level.

About 82,200 precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines will be deployed nationwide. Each machine is programmed to read about 1,000 ballots from four to five polling precincts at 350,000 locations across the archipelago.

The elections commission said the automation process will minimise human intervention in the process and reduce allegations of fraud. It would speed up the electoral process, giving it a result within two days instead of the weeks it has taken in the past.

Can it be done?

Lawmakers, politicians and analysts have expressed concern over the readiness of the country’s election agency to automate balloting because of the introduction of a brand-new system that has never been tested anywhere in the world.

At a congressional oversight hearing in the Senate, lawmakers frowned on the lack of planning by the election agency, including delivery, testing and actual operations of the machines.

There were also concerns over the financial and technical
capability of the Barbados- based company and its local partner that have won the contract for the poll automation.

There were also legal questions raised over the ownership of company due to rumours that the Venezuelan government may have control over it.

What happens next?

Critics fear that allies of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo could exploit any perceived malfunction in the automation process to invalidate the elections.

Candidates could lean on irregularities and flaws to contest results and a massive failure in the process could result in a power vacuum if no winners are declared on June 30, 2010 when terms of office of all elected officials, from the president down to municipal councilors, will expire.

Any potential civil unrest arising from the confusion over the failed automated process could be used as a pretext for declaring martial law and subsequently extend Arroyo’s term beyond June 2010.

Arroyo is not eligible to contest under constitutionally set term limits for elected officials. Critics accuse her and her allies of trying to amend the Charter to remove those limits, but it appears the move to revise the Constitution may not succeed.

Thus, her critics are worried that Arroyo and her allies may be pushing flawed automated balloting to create a scenario that will work in her favor.

What are officials saying?

Election commission officials are confident the automated balloting will succeed despite fears of technical problems and also say tallying of votes can be done manually if machines fail.

James Jimenez, a spokesman for the elections agency, said voting will still be done manually and only the counting is being automated, so if the machines break down, the ballots can be counted. There are also enough spare machines to replace any defective and malfunctioning PCOS.

Gabriel Claudio, the president’s political adviser, dismissed as “unfair’’ and “malicious’’ the speculation that the administration was preparing to make automated elections fail and keep Arroyo in power beyond June, 2010.

Claudio said the President was determined to hold credible, honest, and fast elections next year, a legacy that her government wanted to leave behind.

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