Saturday, 17 April 2010

May 10 poll: Not perfect but RP history’s ‘best’

Kristine L. Alave, TJ Burgonio
With a report from Christine O. Avendaño
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—The May 10 polls will be the Philippines’ “best election” in history, despite warnings and fears that the poll exercise is headed for failure that could plunge the country into instability, the Commission on Elections and Smartmatic-TIM Corp. said Friday.

Cesar Flores, spokesperson for Smartmatic-TIM, the supplier of the automated elections system, said the company is committed to conducting an electronic balloting in the Philippines that promises “fast, accurate and auditable” tallies, a far cry from the old, slow manual system.

“This will be the best election in the history of the Philippines. It won’t be perfect but it will be the best,” he said.

“If you believe the theories, we’re screwed. But it is happening, we’re going to have elections. It will be electronic, it will be accurate, and it will be auditable,” he said.

Comelec Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal deplored the reports that he said were fueling fears of an election failure on May 10.

“We won’t allow failure of elections to happen to favor anyone. We simply won’t allow failure of elections to happen,” Larrazabal told reporters.

Pacific Strategies and Assessments (PSA), a business risk consultancy specializing in Asian risk, said it had found 14 “danger signs” that the country’s first-ever automated elections could run into problems and even fail completely.

The PSA paper, “Assessing 2010 Elections Automation in the Philippines,” cited “risks and vulnerabilities” in the technology, project management and voting aspects of the May 10 exercise. It said that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stood to benefit from a failure of elections.

Speculative and alarmist

Larrazabal said most of the “danger signs” cited by the PSA have already been answered. Some, especially those concerning the attitude and performance of the voters and the board of elections inspectors, were based on speculations only, he said.

The PSA findings pointing to a failure of elections were too “alarmist,” according to political analyst and election reform advocate Ramon Casiple.

Considering the Comelec’s preparations and responses to the problems that had cropped up early, failure of elections is a remote possibility, Casiple said.

The elections will fail only if peace and order breaks down to a point that it prevents the people from casting their ballots, said Casiple, who chairs the Consortium on Electoral Reforms (CER) electoral watchdog group.

“In elections before, there was failure of elections in some precincts, even in some barangays, or a maximum of one or two towns. But never in the history have we had a failure at the provincial level, more so at the national level,” he said.

The CER, along with the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), represents the NGO sector in the Comelec Advisory Council.

Failure of machines

A failure of elections should be distinguished from a failure of the machines, which could happen, according to Casiple.

But if the machines fail, the people can still fill out the ballots, have the ballots counted manually and the results can still be transmitted manually, although the risks such as cheating would come into play, he said.

“There will be a delay in the counting. And, of course, you will introduce risks like the manipulation of the votes,” he said.

Casiple stressed that the real danger is the possibility that the elections would be compromised.

“If you go manual, we go back to the old rules, which we believe are mastered by the cheating operators,” he said.

Casiple said the PSA’s conclusion that Ms Arroyo would benefit from a malfunction of the machines was too “sweeping.”

“Cheating has its limits. If there is a huge gap between the No. 1 and No. 2, it will be very hard for cheating to close this gap. Theoretically, you can, but it will not be believable ... Cheating is only effective in a close fight,” he said.

Political and financial agenda

Flores, who admitted to getting similar warnings of election failure, said Smartmatic-TIM will not allow the elections to fail because its reputation is on the line.

Reports of disaster on Election Day are based on speculations from people who want to pursue their own “political and financial” agenda, he said.

“There will always be people against it, of course. Some are against it for very honest reasons. Some people are skeptics, some have their political mistrust, some people mistrust technology, those I can respect,” he said.

“But when that meets with political and financial interests, that gets more complicated. You don’t know if someone is expressing an honest concern,” he said.

“But people on the street want automation. They want this to work,” Flores said.


In Malacañang, Executive Secretary Leandro Mendoza said people should not believe the speculations being made by groups like the PSA about a possible failure of elections.

There were many “backups” to ensure that the automated polls are successful, he said.

“You know, we are doing everything possible to make this election very credible. The last thing we should have is a failure of election. I don’t think that will be good for the country,” he said.

Mendoza also dismissed as probably “part of his strategy” Liberal Party presidential candidate Benigno Aquino III’s warning that the recent bomb attacks in Basilan were a “prelude” to election failure.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Gary Olivar said Aquino “should show some evidence behind his inflammatory speculations, or else he will end up with the dubious honor of winning the race to the bottom of civility and common sense.”

Deliveries on track

Flores said that with less than a month to go before the polls, Smartmatic-TIM was on track with its deliveries to the provinces.

As of Friday, the National Printing Office has printed 43.7 million ballots. The NPO has to print 50.8 million ballots, the number of the registered voters.

Flores said the NPO’s five printers were hitting nearly 800,000 to 900,000 ballots per day. At that rate, the NPO can be expected to complete the task a couple of days before the April 25 deadline, he said.

The Smartmatic-TIM warehouse in Cabuyao, Laguna, had configured 57,000 precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines as of April 12.

According to Larrazabal, the machines will use especially encrypted compact flash cards, which are configured to the specifications of one precinct.

Flores said the company will carefully monitor the delivery of the ballot packs, ballot boxes and PCOS machines to about 76,000 precincts nationwide.

All these materials and equipment will be bar-coded and Smartmatic-TIM personnel in the areas will periodically send reports to Manila about their status, he said.

The voting machines and the ballot box will be arriving in the municipalities from seven to three days before the elections for the testing and sealing.

The schedule will ensure that the precinct centers will have working PCOS machines on May 10.

To be expected

“It’s not as if we’re going to turn on the machines on Election Day. We have delivered more than 300,000 machines in the past and we never had any misdeliveries,” Flores said.

If we have to replace machines, we can replace them, he said.

He said the company expects some machines will not work and will be replaced on Election Day, but this is to be expected in a project of this size.

“Ninety-eight percent plus of the results will be electronic. I don’t think some of the 2 percent of the precincts will go manual,” he said.

He said Smartmatic has trained more than the required number of technicians to help the BEIs in the polling centers and in their call center.

Satellite transmission

The company has also purchased 5,500 Broadband Global Area Network transmission equipment and 680 Very Small Aperture Terminals for precincts where the mobile network connection is unstable. Satellite transmission equipment will be used in case transmission by Global Packet Radio Service (GPRS) fails.

According to the company’s map of the Philippines’ telecommunication system, about 37 percent of the country does not have reliable mobile network signal.

On Election Day, 41,899 PCOS technicians and 4,981 supervisors will be deployed in all polling precincts, while 1, 926 technicians will be sent to the canvassing centers. The company has hired 562 agents and 55 supervisors for their call center in Ortigas.

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