Wednesday, 5 May 2010

BM Editorial: On a wing and a prayer

Business Mirror

THE glitches uncovered in Monday’s test run of Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines represent the biggest logistical challenge so far to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and private contractor Smartmatic since the country took the decisive step to automate, for the first time, nationwide polls. Yet beyond the logistical challenge, the bigger problem is restoring public confidence, and that’s the one where all concerned Filipinos—from the government and the state workers who will play a role in the polls, to the political parties and candidates, civil society and the voters—must keep their wits and think this through clearly.

There is such a thing as being alert and prepared to reckon with problems as they arise; quite another to go around like headless chickens, spouting doomsday scenarios long before they happen and then shouting, in seeming glee, that every misstep is proving them right.

This isn’t to say the Comelec or its supplier Smartmatic should not be made accountable for this mess. But in a lengthy press briefing at the Comelec on Tuesday, they—together with the cochairman of the congressional oversight panel on poll automation, Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr.—tried to make sense of what happened and led the public through the process of identifying what can be done to ensure as smooth a process as possible on May 10.

According to Smartmatic’s Asia-Pacific office head Cesar Flores, the problem is not with the PCOS units per se, but with the configuration of the memory flash cards which provide each unit its identity and instructions. Later, they said the glitch turned out to have been the result of a simple—but costly—adjustment in the formatting of the ballots. The ballots were originally formatted in single space—both the front page where the national candidates are listed, and the second, for the local. But, someone thought of using double space for local while retaining the single-space format in the front page. The consequence: the flash cards, configured to the national-level page, read wrongly the local slots on the back page.

The explanation seems simple enough, but it has frightened all sectors, especially those in areas like Manila where fears of fraud were already running high as it is, owing to earlier incidents like the discovery of alleged “prefabricated” results from operations right out of City Hall.

Comelec, as a result of what happened to the testing-and-sealing exercise on Monday, has suspended the legally mandated exercise until May 7. This, to give Smartmatic time to replace all the flash cards and make sure they are all properly configured.

To a certain extent, Smartmatic’s Flores has a point: The incident shows the system is verifiable, “auditable” and, therefore, allows responsible officials to remedy problems as they arise. That’s also how they explained the problems that arose with the PCOS and the ballots in the absentee voting in Hong Kong, when the machines and the paper both reacted to the cold and the humidity.

Fine. But the Comelec, which has ruled out proposals for a nationwide manual parallel count on the ground it would defeat the purpose of automation and might be ground for confusion, now finds its options narrowing. People may be willing to give it and its supplier a chance to correct the memory- cards problem, but their patience may be wearing thin. One hopes the irresponsible elements that kept dangling the threat of people power against fraud would not use this case to inflame people’s emotions even more. It’s just as well that volunteer groups like the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting are providing people a measure of hope that if enough people will it, this historic election can yet pull through and yield credible results, by the grace of God.

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