Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Business Mirror Editorial: The half-empty glass and May 10


THE experience with the PCOS machines used for the weekend’s overseas voting among Filipinos in Hong Kong and Singapore, at first glance, seems to provide ample ammunition to doomsayers who this early have made up their minds that this May’s historic, first-ever nationwide poll automation will not work and that instead, there will be fraud, chaos and political instability.

One major newspaper made the fact of two PCOS machines malfunctioning as its headline, when the story written by its reporter, in fairness, clearly showed it was a problem for which a solution was found. More important, the reasons for the malfunction were found quickly, i.e., exposure to HK’s cold, humid weather temporarily affected two units. That a substitute was brought in for one of the malfunctioning units, and worked well, while the second supposedly faulty one worked after another trial, indicates that—as the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has repeatedly asserted—the system has been set up in such a way that a quick response can be made to problems arising (expected in experiments like this) in the course of voting, counting and transmission.

Comelec’s private supplier of the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) units, Smartmatic-TIM Corp., had a ready explanation for what happened in Hong Kong. (Though a similar exercise was held in Singapore at the weekend, no such incidents were reported). The room where the units were stored was “a little humid,” while the ballots were placed in an air-conditioned room to protect them from humid weather, and they “expanded” when taken out.

Is there a danger of this single incident happening on a large scale in the Philippines on May 10, when there will be little room for ghastly, massive malfunctions? According to Smarmatic Asia president Cesar Flores, the ballots in the Philippines are vacuum-sealed, to be opened only on May 10, so the risk of moisture getting in are erased. Unlike Hong Kong, the weather here is dry and hot.

Do the two malfunctioning PCOS units in HK presage, therefore, a scenario of—as doomsayers and poll-automation bashers keep repeating—anarchy and failure of elections? If the accounts in the mass media of the weekend voting by overseas Filipinos were any indication, it would be quite a stretch to say that will be the case. Here is a case where, as both Comelec and Smarmatic have kept saying to those who cared to listen, glitches may be expected but the system has been set up so that solutions can be quickly made and problems addressed as they arise. In short, like the proverbial half-empty or half-full glass, which one may describe either way, depending on his attitude.

This is not to say, though, that Comelec or Smartmatic can now relax. Far from it. The HK experience means they have to be ready with contingencies for every conceivable problem, and make sure remedies will work ASAP.

It may be useful to be reminded of the remarks of one of the poll-automation law’s authors and co-chairman of the congressional oversight panel on the May 10 automation, Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr. He said the country has taken a dramatic, crucial step in pursuing a revolutionary solution to the decades-old problems of cheating in manual elections, which it can’t keep doing at great peril to democracy. Having taken that decisive step, it can’t afford to sabotage this initiative by hypnotizing itself with the mantra that “it won’t work, we’ll never make it.” Problems aren’t being denied, but solutions are available, and only a fool would deliberately ignore them.

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